Utilitarian

Walk around your house with a photographer’s eye, not a home owner’s.  Look for specific, individual elements.  Most are uniform, repeating themes of wood, brick, stone and concrete, put together to form a solid structure.  Each piece contributes to the overall whole, melding together to form the visual expectation of a house.

So why do we put up with these interruptions?

It’s almost as if these arrive at our houses unchanged from the 19th century, remnants of the steam age or when electrical wires filled the skies.  Some sort of mechanical viruses that attach themselves to our residences.  We paint them for camouflage and then disregard them afterwards.  Yet our 21th century lifestyle is enabled by these very devices, deliverers of energy, information, light and connectivity.

What do they do?  No instructions come with them, no pamphlet or URL to use as a way to understand their function.  They just work.  And when they don’t, their own dedicated priesthood descends on them to mutter incantations and perform secret rituals in order to return them to operation.

And in reality, how different are these from the emerging cloud network devices we’re all expected to partake in?  How many people can explain how they works, what they are composed of, how to run or repair them effectively?  We simply to take the idea for granted, that it will always be there, delivering some form of service we’ve been promised will gloriously increase our living standard.

It’s the future, as it has always been.  Devices delivered to our existence that fade from recognition.  And why just these mechanical attachments?  Why shouldn’t a house be sold with full connectivity, including the devices needed.  A tablet for every room, a smartphone for every occupant, an internet TV for each person – all simply passed from owner to owner as functional elements of the house.  No different than windows, doors, floors, heaters and plumbing.

It’ll certainly expand the For Sale listings…..

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5 thoughts on “Utilitarian

  1. Why indeed are these objects attached haphazardly to our houses? As architects, we try very hard to locate them sensitively, carefully – at the very least the electricity, telephone and data exchanges would line up with one another! I am intrigued though by your idea of a house coming equipped with all the electronic devices necessary for full connectivity. Perhaps it should come with its own car and bicycles, too – after all, a house needs to be connected to its urban context.

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    • I feel what you’re describing is the commoditization of housing – that all I’m looking for is shelter and connection. It’s an interesting idea and I’m surprised home sellers haven’t tried it, especially in this tough market. I’ve seen sellers offer “coupons” for new carpet, new paint, new landscaping – why not physical and virtual connection as well? Might be a whole new marketing concept.

      Regarding the objects, I guess they have to be outside for servicing purposes. Perhaps an outdoor “utility chase” that aggregates them into a single location that can be a more appropriate addition to the house? Sort of an outhouse for utilities? Any one object gets in the way of symmetry, though.

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  2. It’s interesting you use the word commoditisation of buildings. A lecture I attended recently by Seattle-based architect, Tom Kundig, also discussed that idea, the way all the bits and pieces we add to the basic structure of a building, not just telephone boxes, but taps and handles and pulls and sinks, are all products purchased from other places. They are made in foreign countries, arrive in boxes, come with warranties… Is that really what architect’s all about? I love the idea of making those items from raw materials – a handle on a door need not be a sophisticated mechanism, it could just be a piece of steel, bent so you can grab onto it. It’s an important way of returning to the first principles of architecture. Kundig does this a lot and it’s something we’re trying to incorporate into our work too.

    If you’re interested, I wrote an article about Kundig here.

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    • I’d scrolled down and read that one – like the idea a lot. I’m firmly embedded in the form fits function camp of architecture.

      My wife has remodeled a couple of kitchens and baths so far and we’re in the “brushed-nickel Scandinavian” mode of clean, utilitarian and smooth. Some of this comes from perceived quality – German plumbing fixtures just seem to behave better and last longer!

      From your article I’m wondering if the same outcome can’t come from found objects married to specific purposes. Or is the finish an integral part of the function? I don’t know – I just want it to perform its function every time I use it. In that way it’s like my camera. I have it set up to perform specific functions that enable my photography – all other features that don’t enable me just don’t get used. Sort of like Photoshop, of which I might use 50% of the tools.

      I carry that to extreme with my large format camera. There each and every function enables specific photographic results and there are no features on the camera (it’s a 50+ year old wooden field camera) that don’t have an immediate application to photography. Using it makes me slow down and think about composing, exposure, depth of field, essential elements and secondary elements. I’m wondering if it’s not like returning to drafting tables, T-squares and rulers for an architect. The simplicity focuses your mind. Your thoughts?

      I like that photograph of Kundig in the article, standing next to a table full of materials you know he’s going to make something cool from. Here’s the principle in a big firm still getting his hands dirty bending and shaping materials to his will. Reminds me of Howard Roark.

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  3. Ha, Howard Roark! I think of him often, especially when I discuss the pros and cons of taking on “bread and butter” projects with fellow architects.

    In many respects I agree with your comment about simplifying one’s tools: I’m not massively into photography, but I do have a neat little Sony Nex C3 compact digital SLR that I bought with a prime lens… I love zooming with my feet. As for architecture, there is definitely a directness that comes from working with one’s hands. Drawing or making models achieve a fantastic feedback loop when I design, somehow one encourages and supports the other. In the original series of lessons to my younger self, I even included that one – Use your hands.

    I’d say that finish is sometimes integral to the function of an object: for instance, a stainless steel sink will work better for longer than a mild steel one. Actually, I’d say that’s more about material than finish – a subtle but important difference. One of the things I like about Kundig’s work is how loose he is with finish. If a sheet of steel comes with fabrication marks on it, just leave it. It will either weather with time or it won’t – either way it’s honesty is its beauty.

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