The new house blend

Terence Riley, curator of the new MOMA exhibit "The Un-Private House," talks about Martha Stewart, changing domestic ideals and why walking around your house naked is increasingly a public issue.

By Julie Caniglia
July 26, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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It was 100 years ago that Swedish artist Carl Larsson published his classic
paean to domestic life, "A Home." Loving watercolor depictions of his
family abode were accompanied by wistful musings, such as the one about his "Cozy
Corner," where he "experienced that unspeakably sweet feeling of seclusion
from the noise of the world."

Today, "Home sweet home" seems like an antiquated notion. The nuclear family is no more.
One-quarter of all Americans currently live alone, and a third of the couples living
together are doing so without children. As for seclusion? From radios on up to
satellite dishes and Web TV, the stream of media into (and out of) the home has grown constant.
Meanwhile, borders between work and home are shifting, if not disappearing altogether.

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"The Un-Private House," a new exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art,
showcases 26 homes that take these changes to heart. Dispensing with
cherished ideals and traditions of homemaking, they attempt to update Le Corbusier's idea of
the home as a "machine for living." A house for a Minneapolis bachelor is a
radical reworking of a suburban residence, tucked behind an unchanged '50s
facade. Sprawling over an English hillside, an imposing six-bedroom home
has thatch on the walls instead of the roof -- and an entire, separate
dwelling for the children. A loft for two Wall Street traders features digital screens,
strategically placed across from the kitchen and living room, so the owners can keep constant
tabs on the market.

Indeed, many aspects of these un-private homes are unsettling: One home has the garage located
on the roof, with a sloping walkway sliced into it that leads down to the front door.
(So when it rains, do you welcome a big puddle of runoff into the house upon opening the door?)
Another has a round, floor-to-ceiling door/window in a child's bedroom,
akin to a vault door, but hinged on its axis. It seems like a nifty idea,
until you realize it opens out into thin air, with a drop down two stories.

If some of the home designs seem off-putting or downright alienating, the design of "The Un-Private House" is a mix of comfortable domestic references and high-tech accouterments. Large-scale digital images of the homes serve as wallpaper in the exhibit, while sturdy beds and tables act as pedestals for architectural models. Virtual home tours play on the latest flat-screen TVs. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a living room-like reading area with irresistibly
cushy seating and a small library of architectural titles; but the show's pride and joy is a large round table where people sit down together to feast on digital information. At
the center, a Lazy Susan holds 26 coaster-sized disks, one for each house: Set one on a "placemat" at the table, and an interactive guide to the house
appears on the Corian surface, projected from above. If visitors revert to
their couch-potato selves in the exhibit's living room, here at the dining
table they're like eager kids reveling in a deluxe Lego set.

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I sat down with the curator of "The Un-Private House," Terence Riley, to
talk about people's fierce attachment to domestic ideals, the secret of
Martha Stewart's success and how the blurred lines between private and public extend beyond the home.

You framed "The Un-Private House" around the idea that home life has
changed more in the past 30 to 50 years than in the previous, say, 400
years. But in the larger picture, most homes have changed so little.
Are we really thinking all that differently in terms of our domestic lives?

The biggest change I see that is really going to drive domestic
architecture, as well as society, is the notion that the man gets up in the
morning and leaves the house, goes out in the world and lives out this role
as a public person -- leaving the women and children in the home as a kind
of cocoon. This is such a fundamental part of traditional middle-class
culture. But virtually all those things have changed. For instance, it's
entirely likely that a household these days has no kids, whereas some
people have argued that the ultimate goal of the bourgeois was to raise
children to inherit your property -- a kind of capitalistic means of overcoming death.

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Some segments of society are addressing these changes, but it seems
there's another segment that is actually retrenching on the domestic
scene. Everybody supposedly needs these SUVs, for instance, which are bigger than any '50s station wagon. They're driving them into
gated communities and parking them at the mini-mansion. How does all this
relate to your vision of the un-private house?

Gated communities are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. housing market. They're fantasies -- self-delusions, really -- being played out on a
mass scale, with massive amounts of dollars. But does a gated community really reinforce this notion of the private house? These mini-mansion guys
aren't secluded from the world. They've got their Bloomberg computers to watch their stocks, their satellite dishes, cell phones, security systems.
It's not so much keeping anything in or out, as keeping everything.

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The mini-mansion may look traditional, but inside are televisions with cabinets
that open and close automatically. These houses are wired to the max, and yet their owners are more comfortable with the imagery of pre-technological
revolution houses. [Urban historian] Witold Rybczynski and other people who don't really care
for modernist imagery, they'll say: What's wrong with hiding technology? Plumbing gets hidden in the walls -- even modernists didn't insist on
putting the pipes out!

There's another argument that stems from new
urbanism, that we need front porches and peaked roofs and obvious entries
to homes -- these forms are hard-wired into our psyche as symbols of home,
they help stabilize us in an unstable world. I've even read that traditional, vertically oriented windows are better than horizontal picture
windows because they echo a standing, active human body -- as opposed to a
lying-down, presumably depressed or even dead person.

Well, I don't think anybody's DNA has a peaked roof in it. I'd say that's an acquired association. There are plenty of examples in Europe and
elsewhere where the principles of the new urbanism are played out just
fine, they're in practice in many places in the world. But adding a sort of
stylistic mandate to them just seems kind of crazy.

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The point is that good urbanism comes in different scales, different styles, and it also comes from having unexpected or new things. It's not
just this canned, closed set of references. The Dutch row houses in the show
are individualized statements about the people who live there, what they do
and what they need, but they're also building blocks designed to be
modified and put elsewhere. They fit into the city's fabric, even though
they're not traditional. The new urbanists have it right, that pieces should
fit together and make something -- it's the presumed aesthetic program and a
lot of the values that thereby get grafted onto new urbanism that I have a
problem with. In Europe, you can see how they've dealt with a lot of those
urban issues that making living in the cities great. It doesn't have to
mean picket fences, or front porches done in ye olde lemonade stand-style.
Porches can be whatever they want to be.

The idea of being technologically wired runs through a lot of the houses in this exhibit.
The architects Hariri & Hariri mention how in their Digital House,
empty spaces are "no longer a waste of time" -- having digital screens as
walls creates "opportunities for heightened awareness." What's with this
ideal of 100 percent total engagement? Is there no longer a value in doing
nothing, or having emptiness, or just plain relaxing?

Don't just do something. Sit there! [Laughs.] Well, people are going to
have to learn how to manipulate technology to their own benefit. Every new
technology offers promise -- and behind every promise there's a risk, just
as behind every risk there's a promise, as the saying goes. I'm willing to
believe that there's a more dignified way of living, and that technology is
probably the answer, but you probably have to learn how to live with it.
Take the loft in the exhibit that belongs to the couple who are traders on
Wall Street -- they actually trade out of their home, around the world, so
they might be working with foreign markets at 3 a.m.

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When I would describe their lives, people would groan. They
think this couple must be freaks, or automatons, or incredible economic
animals. But the fact is, they're a good example of learning how to live
with this stuff. They don't have a bunch of computers sitting around their
bedroom; they've made a space for them, and you can see that space from a
couple other places, but you can also close it off. You can do whatever
people have done ever since radios, telephones, televisions were introduced
to the house: Find some way of controlling them so they don't run your life.

But I think there's long been a popular fear, especially in the last 10 years,
that technology is like this tsunami that's coming and is going to sweep
over us and subjugate everybody.

Some people are concerned about being overwhelmed by technology, but at
the same time, I don't think there's been another time in the 20th century
when technology has had such a high degree of respect or popularity. After
the world wars, there were these periods where technology was really seen
as this evil force.

Also during the arts and crafts movement at the turn of the century,
which was a reaction to all the new technology at that time.

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That was a generation of people who were feeling the first shocks of
the industrial age. And if I think our superhighways are ugly, the initial
manifestations of the industrial age were indeed crude, loud, dirty -- the
reason why we have zoning to keep factories away from residences. There was
a huge disparity between contemporary life and another life that people
knew so well, but was out of reach: the wife at home cooking meals, things
being made as they had been for centuries, furniture hand-carved by
specially trained people -- this whole notion of reality that was severely
challenged by the Industrial Revolution. There was a crisis of authenticity
when things started getting manufactured out of new materials, with
stamping, casting, printing. It's hard for us to imagine how much it threw
that culture into a tizzy.

You could say we're having a similar crisis of authenticity today. People
choose electronic "wallpaper" for their "desktops." And then in
so-called real life, you have enterprises like [furniture store] Restoration Hardware that
capitalize on the crisis, building stories around mission lamps and old
metal juicers. They hark back to a time that people today probably never
knew themselves.

That's what Martha Stewart's all about, too. When she works with these
very romantic, sentimental notions about domestic life, people know she's
not referring to their parents' world -- it's clearly about how their
grandparents lived, or going even further back. It's also about making
things. Her deal works so well because making things has become very exotic
in a Western industrialized world that is now basically all consumers.
Nobody makes anything -- they don't make food, bread, fabrics.

So she embodies a more literal arts and crafts ideal for our turn of
the century?

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Well, the original arts and crafts people were trying to reinstitute a
world that was still within memory. With Martha Stewart it's different --
she can show people how to bake bread, or make nails for that matter -- her
magazine reminds us that at one time people actually did make these things
for themselves.

What was once necessity has become an exotic form of leisure.

It is. It's like these people with gym bodies. They don't have muscles
from hard work; they have muscles from having time off. And baking bread
now is not about work, it's about leisure.

The BV house in England, where the children have their own separate house, reminded me again of mainstream mini-mansions, where the parents have a "master suite" set apart from the kids' areas. I wonder if another psychological shift is
occurring where people are becoming less sentimental about children, or the
ideals of childhood in general.

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There are two houses in the show like that. At first these places seem
crazy, you think what are these people doing? Do they not like their kids?

It's especially touchy in the wake of the Littleton high school
shootings. People were horrified that these parents had no idea of what
their kids were up to. What were they doing -- or not doing -- to their kids?

The houses in the show do tend to have more public spaces. When the kids aren't in their rooms -- which, unlike [in] the mini-mansion, aren't really these huge suites, just more functional sleeping rooms -- they're in these big, open social spaces. So there is a
kind of balance there. But there's another way of looking at that
sentimentality issue. My own mother became a mommy 10 months after she
became a Mrs., but a lot of couples these days are having kids later in
life. They may have lived for 10 years as a couple with a romantic life, a
private life together. And I think when they have kids, there's a
hesitation to completely give up this notion of themselves as a couple.
This doesn't come at the expense of the devotion to children -- when this
kind of couple decides to have kids, it tends to be a very conscious
decision. They're serious about being parents, but they also realize that
people are capable of some separation as well: a little bit of autonomy, a
little bit of privacy.

That ideal is worked into the design of their houses, and also in more
mainstream houses, to a less obvious extreme. Maybe because people still
seem wary of it.

It's this thing about institutionalizing it that gets people antsy.
People think in the back of their minds, even though they could never bring
themselves to say it, that women should stay home. Families with two
parents working are dealing with things as best they can, and hopefully not
producing more Trench Coat Mafia kids, but people fear there's something
wrong with this way of living -- even if they themselves are doing it. It
isn't "right" enough to be enshrined in the house.

It shows how the house can be an emotional battlefield, not just for its
residents, but people on the outside. Wasn't there a backlash against Ludwig Mies
van der Rohe's glass house -- both the house and the woman who lived there?

They were suspicious of the house itself, and the fact that its owner
was a single woman in her 40s -- and a doctor. Obviously, Mrs. Farnsworth
would hardly be a freak today, and the Farnsworth House would probably go
down as one of the more elegantly conservative homes.

And yet she eventually decided she didn't like living there, which
brings up the issue of physical transparency in these un-private houses.
Take the glass house in Houston, and the pair of row houses in Amsterdam --
or the most dramatic case, the house in Tokyo that has a giant, two-story curtain
running along two of its facades. These are all in urban neighborhoods. Since you've
visited these houses and the people living in them, how do they actually get along there?

Two things. Almost every glass house I've seen has curtains. It isn't
that there's no privacy, it's an operable kind of privacy -- you modulate it
depending on what's happening in the house. Plus, the Farnsworth house is
completely out of view of other houses. In a more dense atmosphere, like in
Houston, Amsterdam or Tokyo, it's more of an issue. But it's not just you
in the house -- it's the public.

And if you're prone to walking around naked in your glass house with
the curtain open -- are you making other people uncomfortable, or angry at
you for encroaching on their sense of modesty? It's a two-way thing that
society negotiates. The curtain-wall house in Tokyo is actually a surprise,
because the tendency there is to be more reserved, whereas in Amsterdam
they have prostitutes in shop windows and sex is a commonplace dinner topic.

I saw how much people -- myself included -- were enjoying themselves in the living-room area of the exhibit, plopped down on these sofas like they were their own. Starbucks had to start competing with the cozier independent shops by putting comfy chairs and reading areas in their stores. And you see movie theaters putting in love seats ... maybe
this is a kind of more physical transparency for people who don't live in
an architect-designed un-private house -- they're gravitating toward being
more at home in public.

I think they definitely are. In Paris at the turn of the 20th century,
there was a cafe for every 67 people. Parisians had this very
developed notion of the neighborhood as a public living room. And Americans
are starting to feel more comfortable with that, even though we're normally
thought of as generally very reserved, private people.

The design for the bachelor pad in the suburbs is striking because it
touches on this whole other architectural wave: retrofitting a suburban
house for other needs than raising a family. For one or two people, a house
like that could be a small palace -- and with all these demographic changes,
it seems likely that we could end up with a huge glut of suburban family
homes on the market.

I think that's happening now, actually. People have already transformed
the way they live. The question is now, do they want to make a decision about
the way their house looks that reflects that, or not? For probably one of
the first times ever, "resale" -- the idea that you never want to do
anything out of the ordinary with your house, because then it won't sell --
is not so much an issue. When so many households are couples without
children, and 25 percent of people are living alone, quite frankly, resale
doesn't mean as much. There are a lot of people out there who may very
well want what you have.


Julie Caniglia

Julie Caniglia is a freelance writer in New York.

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