Let’s suppose the next big change will be housing.
Here’s where we are now:
Everyone lives in a space behind a door.
Within this space there are more spaces — some have doors and some do not.
In these spaces there are objects. The objects have functions: they are equipment.
The people sharing the space vary in number, age, and relationship. But be it apartment or house (let’s call them ‘dwellings’), the pieces remain: spaces and equipment.
The lawyer gets home and switches on the light. It is 7pm. One of the halogen bulbs in the kitchen has blown, but she can see well enough to microwave her low-fat chicken tikka masala. The stainless steel fridge is sticky with cooking grease and fingerprints.
She eats on the couch — no room in the flat for a table — and scrolls through a pinterest board of cushions inspired by traditional weaving from Calabria.
Le Corbusier told us in 1923 that a house is ‘a machine for living in’.
It’s grating — an uncomfortable statement. Dwellings in our culture are supposed to be anything but machines for living in, just as cars used to be (and, in the clutching desperation of marketers, still are) anything but machines for transport.
Our dwellings at this cultural moment are supposed to represent our tastes, interests, class, identities. The need for food, shelter, and warmth are long since catered for; now we see an intense and rising focus on everything about a dwelling that isn’t that: our succulent terrariums, our cardboard deer’s heads, our Calabrian cushions.
Apart from, of course, most of us don’t have any of those things. Acquiring them costs money, but it also costs in other ways — in the time it takes to acquire them, and skill to curate them: choosing objects that are in fashion but not glaringly so. And so we don’t actually have terrariums or paper deer heads or fancy cushions, we have the knowledge that we should have them. We have other, crappier things, things we hope will communicate something about us nonetheless. We have fridge magnets.
This is why I think every object in the house can be identified as equipment, as ‘a necessary item for a particular purpose’ — it’s just that the purpose is often communicating an identity rather than staying fed and warm. It’s just that when it comes to communicating identity, our objects don’t fulfil their purpose very well.
Our belief in dwelling-as-communication underpins a lot of the criticism that Le Corbusier’s Bauhaus edict has received. But the counterpoints are additive, not contradictory — to say that a house should be more than a machine for living in is to concede that it fundamentally is one.
Dwellings are systems, and they require constant maintenance. I’m not the first to observe that this maintenance is mostly invisible, nor that it’s invisible because it’s mostly done by women.
In the kitchen, the man holds out his hands, conciliatory. ‘Just tell me what to do,’ he says. ‘Just tell me what needs doing and I’ll do it.’ He smiles blandly.
The woman briefly considers, and decides against, throwing a coffee cup at him. Managing the tasks is as much work than doing them — more, even. Knowing what needs doing is what needs doing.
But she doesn’t know how to tell him that, so she tells him to stack the dishwasher instead.
At the crudest level, work can be divided into ‘projects’ and ‘business as usual’. Systems — at least, human-made systems — can be broken down in a similar way: designing the system is a project-type task that is (usually) done once. Running the system business-as-usual — something done either regularly or continuously. It only takes a few seconds to put the pillowcases back in the right place in the linen cupboard, but only if a ‘right place’ has been established for them in the first place.
In this way, people who live in dwellings must become experts in two things: system design, and system maintenance. Most people are neither.
The fridge is not promising. A capsicum has gone soft. There’s some mayonnaise, a jar of Dolmio’s, a tub of leftover rice from a takeaway. Some packaged meat-based snacks that probably don’t need refrigeration. High-protein milk.
He googles ‘capsicum mayonnaise’. Allrecipes.com offers a pasta bake. Maybe he should add the Dolmio’s.
To live successfully in a dwelling is not just a question of being in a space with a door and having adequate equipment. It is also necessary to have a set of skills around not just using the equipment, but in developing a monumental skill sets of how to both set up and run intersecting systems that cross the space, the people in it, and entirely separate variables like dirty dishes and breakages and when milk will turn.
The fact that we do not have a name for this skillset — the constant creation and maintenance of systems in a dwelling — is both unbelievable and inevitable. The closest option is “housekeeping”, A word so quaint that it’s unusable. More common would be ‘housework’, a word that covers the final chores but not the systems management that underpins them.
Expecting the situation to remain the way it currently is is predicated on an assumption that I think will prove to be false, which is this:
That people enjoy the tasks of housekeeping enough that they would continue doing them if there was a viable alternative.
This assumption its self is based on a deeper cultural assumption, that the women who do the housekeeping don’t hate it. If they hated it, then the fact that they were compelled to do it year after year would be revealed as intolerable, so therefore they must be fundamentally ok with things.
A recent contribution to maintaining the narrative of tolerability has come from a movement that seeks to give housekeeping spiritual cachet — Marie Kondo doesn’t speak alone. There is a baked in assumption here of the kind that cults run on: if you have not attained happiness, the fault is in you, not the teachings. If you can’t find fulfilment in housekeeping, the fault is in you, not the work.
There’s no better way to have someone comply with onerous labor than to make them believe they volunteered for it.
“When I get a day free”, she thinks, “I will tidy the house.” After all, how hard could it be? It’s housework, not rocket science.
Unexpectedly, a free day arrives. She starts with the kitchen cupboard. Time to throw out the food gone past it’s date. Wipe the shelves. Reorganise.
Four hours later, with bags of flour and jars of cumin scattered across the floor, comes the horrifying realisation — this was never one day’s work.
You can dent the sides of the housekeeping problem, of course. Mostly, you can do this by asking external agents into your space. You can hire a cleaner, you can have your groceries home delivered — matched to recipes, if you like. But these solutions have two things in common:
- They only address one of the intersecting systems in the dwelling
- They are still predicated on the dwelling itself: the person or the goods must go to the physical location where the dwelling is.
Which brings us back to our variables: space and equipment.
Looking in through the front door of any dwelling, the relationship seems clear: the space is fixed, permanent, impervious. The equipment is transitory, interchangeable — this mug, that mug, the next tenant’s mug, it doesn’t matter. They’re fungible.
Let’s look again.
The person in the dwelling has specific activities they need to do: they need to eat, to wash, to sleep. These activities require equipment: a plate, a towel, a bed. Sure, it could be any plate—but it has to be a plate. A space without equipment cannot be used for living.
That means the need for the equipment is fixed.
The need for the space behind the door is not.
What if the space behind the door is just the best way we’ve had to organise our equipment — until now?
What if having your own equipment has been the best way to have access to the equipment you need to live — until now?
What would happen if people decided not to acquire the skills required for housekeeping?
The woman wakes up in her room. It is light and airy, and completely soundproof. It is big enough for a single bed, but things are looking promising with her new partner, so she may move to a double room shortly.
She makes good use of the room’s shower, and thinks about what to wear for the day. The room itself has no storage. There is a catalogue of her garments on her phone – she chooses a couple of shirts and a skirt, which rustle up through the building’s delivery system with in a minute or so. She chooses the white shirt and sends the other back.
Time for breakfast. Seven different food companies deliver to the building- she’s just changed to a new provider. The shared cupboard has cereal, milk, toast – things never run out and, because they’re shared, rarely go off. Feeling reflective, she eats in a sound protected booth away from her current floormates. There are ten to a floor – a congenial number – matched via shared connections. Social researchers worked out quite early that unplanned contact was a necessary factor in developing friendships, and after some teething problems, the floor communities have proven to be a drawcard for bringing people to the building. The model has proven to be a success – friendships and relationships form quickly on the floors, but if tension arises, one person can be gone to a new floor in the space of an hour.
The building doesn’t provide any services, it just takes a commission from companies that do. Later today her clothes will be washed by one contractor, her sheets by another. Many sheet options are available- she pays a little extra for a higher thread count. She’s never seen the laundry room.
A lot of residents complain about storage fees. Before moving in they invested, more or less, in cutlery, glassware, cushions, none of which are permitted in the building and so are in boxes somewhere under street level. Some people rent semi-permanent ‘living rooms’, not least to have access to their stuff, but many of the boxes will never be opened again.
It’s not that there aren’t options — you can have one of seven hairdryers, one of twelve bedside lights, and the art rental collection is extensive — you just have to choose from the options the building’s contractors provide, or pay for dispensation to use your own stuff (‘corkage’, the residents call it). After years of eBay and amazon, most people find the building’s catalogue of items a relief.
Of course she promised herself she’d invest the money she wasn’t spending on a mortgage in something – shares maybe. Of course she hasn’t.
After work – half the day in the building’s remote working space, half on a site visit - she’s expecting friends. She’s booked one of the social rooms with a kitchen and a garden, along with a recipe for asparagus spears with a miso glaze – she likes cooking, and the recipe looks fun. The ingredients and cooking utensils will be there when she arrives. If the weather holds they can eat in the garden, a cantilevered balcony set with half-mature trees and flower beds. If not, the wall inside will feature a nice pastiche of her instagram feed, minus one friends’ ex. She’s looking forward to it.
She has no home.
All things considered, it’s working out well.
(Coda: If you made it this far you should read Ian Bogost’s ‘Play Anything’ for a far more perceptive take on how objects do and do not relate to people.)