By Finn Williams, Jack Self, Shumi Bose

11 July 2016 - 20:46

'We wanted to ask: how much would you be willing to share with your neighbours?' Image (c) Cristiano Corte
'We wanted to ask: how much would you be willing to share with your neighbours?' Image ©

Cristiano Corte

This year's architecture exhibition in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Home Economics, promises to change how we think about the way we live. We spoke to the curatorial team who designed one of the rooms.

Sharing is the theme for the first room in this exhibition. Do people actually want to share housing? Or are they forced to do so because of cost? 

Finn Williams, curator: Normally when we talk about sharing, we automatically think, 'We don't have any other option. I can't afford it and you can't afford it. So maybe let's pool together.' It's seen as a compromise.

But we were thinking: is it possible that sharing could be proposed as a luxury rather than a last resort? How can we propose sharing in a way that can make our lives richer? Rather than feeling like we have less, can sharing make us feel like we have more?

A very clear and personal example would be the record player and vinyl collection, which we put in a shared wardrobe in the room we designed. My life would be richer if I could share the vinyl record collection of all the people in my apartment building. I would have a better collection than I could ever afford on my own.

Perhaps there needs to be a new term for the type of sharing that we're experiencing at the moment, which is more like a kind of temporary ownership. For example, if you use ride-sharing services like Uber, their tagline is that it gives you a private driver, for the duration that you need one. You don't need your own car because you're sharing the service with everybody else, but you have some of the benefits of private ownership (because the car is temporarily yours), more space (because you don't need a garage), and lower costs (because you don't have to maintain or buy the car in the first place). In that sense, we're thinking about how sharing can be de-stigmatised and seen as a positive.

The rooms are themed by time. What inspired your 'Hours' room, which contains a transparent wardrobe and daybeds?

Finn Williams: We imagined a collective living room, shared between a number of apartments.

The daybeds represent flexibility over time.You can use a bed to sit on, but beds equally may be places where we work or sleep.

We also included a shared 'garderobe' or wardrobe containing things that make sense economically to share, like a vacuum cleaner, but also luxuries you might not otherwise be able to access. So we worked with a fashion designer, J.W. Anderson, who curated a collection of gender-neutral, age-neutral clothes that could be shared between different residents of different apartments. You might normally not pay for expensive designer clothing if you think you will only wear it a few times; but sharing it makes it more affordable, and gives more of us access to high-quality design. We wanted to ask: how much would you be willing to share with your neighbours?

How did you imagine the space would be used on a day-to-day basis?

Jack Self, curator: We imagined the space as the living room for a shared household in a tower block. Normally, a high-rise tower is designed with a core (where the stairs, elevators and services run), a corridor coming off this, and then all the apartments flanking either side. In our model, the core is pulled apart to open up the corridor and create common space in between the apartments.

This space would be neither part of your private space, nor accessible by the public. Each common space could only be accessed by the people who actually lived on that floor. You would know everyone on your floor, and you would probably have chosen to live with them.

There are almost no domestic fittings in the room, just the transparent wardrobe and daybeds. Why is the room so minimalist?

Jack Self: The exhibition is a full-scale architectural model. The designer can't include every little detail, so you only include the essential details to convey a concept or space. This is why the space might perhaps appear 'minimalist'.

How would you personally use the space?

Shumi Bose, curator: I was raised in a sprawling joint family in India, so I have cherished memories of communal domestic spaces being used for convivial activities like cooking, eating or singing, when in need of emotional support, or to share responsibilities like childcare. At the same time, there are times when privacy is desirable, so I'd need to be able to retreat from that shared environment.

I also have way too much 'stuff' of my own – particularly books and cooking equipment; and I like to buy art that I currently have no place to display. I love these objects enough to own them, but I can't possibly benefit from all of them, all of the time. So I would be very happy to see them offered for use by other people, in a shared space.

Finn Williams: I actually live in a Victorian terrace house, but, to some extent, the way I live in it is already structured similarly to the Hours space. In the last couple of weeks I’ve shared a car, a mitre saw, and a paddling pool with my neighbours, and actually leant someone a room while they rented their flat on Airbnb. We haven’t swapped clothes yet though. These forces aren’t just shaping the homes we will build tomorrow – they’re reshaping the way we use the space we already have.

Jack Self: Of greatest interest to me is the fact that the room doesn't tell me how to use it. I look around at my small one-bedroom apartment and I am painfully aware of how conventional it appears. I didn't intend for that to happen, things just got arranged more or less automatically – to the extent where I don't think my girlfriend is even aware that things could be otherwise. We have a bedroom, with a bed and a clothes rail, and a sitting room with a sofa and table. There are stacks of books everywhere and a cupboard in the kitchen that serves as a kind of overflow for domestic life: the vacuum cleaner and mop, umbrellas, plastic bags, a suitcase and some paint from when we had to redo our airplane-scale tiny bathroom. The Hours space offers a way out from what I really feel is the oppression of the expected. Its freedom suggests that I could reinvent my home easily and try out many different arrangements of furniture.

How is architecture responding to trends in how we live, like streaming video, or having less ‘stuff’ (as per this recent article in the Washington Post)? Can architects translate fluid trends into solid bricks and mortar designs?

Jack Self: There certainly is a general trend toward owning less, and toward the immaterial – both immaterial objects (digital photos, not picture frames) and labour (working on a computer, not working in a factory). The popular narrative is that we want to own less because we want to live in city centres, where apartments are smaller; we want to be more mobile; and we want more flexibility in work and travel.

But if we flip this optimism, we see that it is a reaction to housing and job shortages that make central living necessary, even as the volume and floor area of homes are decreasing. We lack job security and the ability to predict or plan for the future. We lack access to mortgages for our homes, because we lack cash to pay a deposit. In other words, some scepticism shows that so-called opportunities are frequently exploitative in nature.

What’s not likely to change in what we want from architecture?

Shumi Bose: I don't know how soon we're likely to jettison ideas of private ownership, value and status. Buildings are seen as assets, both at an individual and corporate level. A house is likely to be the largest personal investment one makes in a lifetime, so this binds architecture to financial security. It's hard to see this changing, but whether or not the desire to buy a home is economically attainable for most of us remains to be seen.

On a more physical level, we won't stop looking for spaces that are pleasant to dwell in. We want well-proportioned, well-lit and secure houses, where we can shelter and live safely and pleasantly. This is why certain types of architecture – such as warehouse buildings, or in England, the Georgian townhouse – retain their popularity over decades and through various changes of use. Increasing numbers of people may not be able to afford to live in them, but I hope that architects will always seek to provide us with healthy, high-quality and beautiful homes.

Home Economics is open to the public at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice until 27 November 2016. 

Watch a short tour of the exhibition.

Find out more about How We Live Now, a five-part film series about how we live in cities, co-produced with the Guardian.

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