4.145 or 4.153
MArch students; optional for SMArchS/Urbanism students
“The problem is this: How to love people who have no use.” — Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
In contemporary politics both the left and the right continue to view full employment as a policy priority. Increasingly, however, questions about the nature of work in an ever-more automated world are leading political economists, technologists and sociologists to consider the possibility of a future without work, or, more accurately, without work as it is currently defined. According to Geert Lovink and Franco Berardi, the capitalist promise of “full employment turned out to be a dystopia: there is simply not enough work for everyone. Zero work is the tendency, and we should get prepared for it, which is not so bad if social expectations change, and if we accept the prospect that we’ll work less and we’ll have time to think about life, art, education, pleasure, love, and what have you rather than solely about profit and growth.” If we accept this premise, how do we prepare for a future without work?
In his recent essay “F*** Work,” James Livingston asks, “How would human nature change as the aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of all?” In a different way we might ask: what would it mean to live in a world where we work less? What would we do? How would we live? And, as architects, we might ultimately ask a different version of Livingston’s question: How would human habitats change as the aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of all?
After all, our urbanism and architecture—including our current models of dwelling—are the product of a centuries old economic system that segregates sites of labor and production from sites of dwelling. Under a new economic model in which individuals are freed from the requirement of work as a means of survival, it becomes necessary to speculate upon other conceptions of productivity and other forms of human association, and, consequently, to speculate upon the organization and form of such a world.
Americans define themselves through work; it builds character, or so we believe. The American Dream itself is premised on individual achievement, with the promise that our labor will be rewarded by a sense of personal fulfillment as measured by the things we collect and consume. For many, the sine qua non of the dream, our greatest collectible, is the single-family house. It is, more than any other object, the symbol of success in America, the tool with which we represent our achievements. To own a home then, as we have been told over and over again, is to live the American Dream.
Across the latter half of the twentieth century—and indeed into the first decade of this century— homeownership rates advanced consistently in the US, but since the collapse of the housing market in 2008, they have been declining. The Dream, it seems, is in crisis, and the legitimating social, economic, and environmental narratives that sustained the endless reproduction of detached suburban dwellings are collapsing. According to John Archer, “the romanticized isolation of the individual (or nuclear family unit) in a manufactured Arcadian preserve is an increasingly untenable fiction.”
Increasingly, suburbs, and the detached single-family houses of which they are comprised, work to isolate and separate us, to dislocate us as individuals, detached from any larger heterogeneous collective body. The common cul-de-sac is, both literally and symbolically, the end of the road, a terminus in a system. Safely sequestered within its four (or five, or six, or eight, or twelve) walls, we stand apart from the crowd, reaching out through an array of devices to make contact with those who are, more-or-less and more often than not, just like us. Space, meanwhile, becomes increasingly less a medium in which we mix and more a barrier that insulates us from those unlike ourselves. And as houses balloon in size, this sense of disconnection is amplified within the walls of the house itself, with each inhabitant retreating to ever more far-flung and insular private domestic retreats. The social and political consequences of this withdrawal are increasingly evident in the deterioration of civil society and the erosion of civil discourse.
But what is the alternative? Is the detached house with its resulting social detachment a prerequisite of the American Dream? Is it possible to imagine other futures for the Dream and, consequently, other futures for dwelling? What happens when personal happiness is no longer a function of economic success derived from the fruits of ones labor? In such a climate, it could be argued that the Dream, as currently defined, has no utility. Liberated from the idea that our dwellings must be understood as freestanding castles—isolated retreats from society through which we represent our individualism and secure our market share—we could instead conceive of assemblages of dwellings that collectively define a domain of mutual cooperation, interaction and informed discourse.
But in order to credibly imagine new forms of collective dwelling, we must also imagine new social, economic, and political contexts within which we might dwell collectively. When subjected to a new set of parameters—if linked for example, as it will be in this studio, to a transformed conception of the role of work in society—each dwelling could become a cornerstone of a productive and consensual community. Even so, it is necessary to keep in mind that the Dream cannot be transformed overnight and made new out of whole cloth. It is too deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. At its core, the Dream is about security, comfort and familiarity, as much as it is about aspiration, accomplishment and status. Any new form of dwelling, if it is to dislodge us from our long-habituated connection to the single-family detached house, must deliver a compelling new narrative that makes collective life seem both more necessary and more desirable.
The challenge of this studio then is not only to propose other possible forms of dwelling but also to tell good stories about other possible ways of living, and living together, in a world after the end of work. Often, the stories that we tell as architects are as important as the things that we make.
“The prospects of architecture are not divorced from the prospects of the community. If man is created, as the legends say, in the image of the gods, his buildings are done in the image of his own mind and institutions.” — Lewis Mumford, Sticks and Stones: a Study of American architecture and civilization
The studio will begin with readings that consider alternate conceptions of work in an increasingly automated world. Through discussions and scenario building exercises, the class will identify possible futures visions for a post-labor economy and its impact on the shape of human communities. Concurrently we will study various key moments in the history of domestic architecture that can inform the design work of the group. Through a drawing based analysis of historic and contemporary domestic models, the studio will identify a set of inflection points in the history of dwelling that open new paths of development—both organizational and formal—for conceiving of a world without—or likely, with less—work, paths that prioritize interaction over isolation, collectivity over privacy. In the end, our objective in this studio is to study the architectural impact of a transformed political economy on our current conceptions of housing, conceptions that are, in fact, unique to the circumstances of our own historical situation.