3 July, 2017Issue 34.9Architecture

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Inner Life

Matilda Bathurst

 
InHabit
edited by Antony Buxton,
Jane Anderson and Linda Hulin
Peter Lang
276 pp.
£45

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is it that intrigues us about the idea of inhabitation? To exist within a structure isn’t enough; from childhood through to later life we take delight in models and manifestations of inhabitation – dollhouses, ideal home shows, an interior viewed through a window at dusk. Arguably inhabitation is best experienced by proxy, a theory demonstrated by the fact that last Sunday – one of the hottest days of the year – hundreds of people chose not to be at home nor even outside, but inside a 1:1 scale model of another person’s house, enclosed within the exhibition halls of the Barbican.

The Japanese House:
Architecture and Life after 1945
Installation View
Barbican Art Gallery, London
23 March – 25 June 2017
Photo by Miles Willis / Getty Images

The installation, the centrepiece of the exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, is modelled on the Tokyo home of Yasuo Moriyama, described as a “hedonist” and an “urban hermit”. The house is a shrine to sensory and cerebral experience: the basement contains Moriyama’s noise music discography, a widescreen TV plays French films in a room filled with dvds, art books and pulp paperbacks are piled on the stairs.

Over the course of each hour, lighting effects simulated the transition from dawn to dusk; guests examined the contents of Moriyama’s kitchen, we queued to have a look at his downstairs loo. Moriyama himself, most likely at home in Tokyo, was notably absent; instead, he could be seen inhabiting the space on screen, the eponymous hero of a documentary film by the architectural filmmakers Bêka and Louise Lemoine.

For the duration of time spent inside the installation, the visitor is invited to become conscious of the experience of inhabitation, to observe its form and conceive of a meaning. The installation provides a simultaneous sense of immersion and detachment which enables that consciousness, impossible to access in our own homes and arguably very difficult to produce in any other form – that of an academic study, for instance. A recently published book of essays, Inhabit: People, Places and Possessions raises the question of whether academic writing can address an experience as complex, shifting and all-pervasive as inhabitation.

The book is the outcome of a seminar series convened by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) and the theme of inhabitation was selected as a point of shared interest between different disciplines, an entry point to analyse “culture in its physical and ideological context”. The seminars were attended by academics working in the fields of architecture, archaeology, anthropology, geography, sociology, design, art and economic history, and the essays serve as a cross section of the conversation.

The first three essays in the book introduce ways of conceptualising inhabitation. Anthropologist Linda Hulin outlines the tension between the idea of home and its material expression, and the architect Jane Anderson analyses the relative agency between a built structure and its inhabitants. Andrea Placidi’s essay “Furnitecture” extends this theme, arguing that well-designed structures might allow for a more flexible interpretation of architectural space. Other essays examine the praxis of inhabitation via topics as diverse as the choice of cooking utensils in the Late Iron Age, the social and structural evolution of the English country house, and how early issues of Playboy magazine applied architectural images and narrative forms to create a new, perfectly packaged masculine identity. A notion of “Diminished Habitation” is introduced by essays addressing mobile domesticity, Damian Robinson’s archaeological exploration of life lived aboard ship and Rachael Kiddey’s study of homelessness in present day York and Bristol. The book ends with two essays grouped under the heading “Ruptured Habitation”: Catherine Richardson explores the spatial and ritualistic structures which surrounded the deathbed in the early modern house, and Stephen Walker examines how ideas of inhabitation are dismantled in the work of contemporary artists Rachel Whiteread, Dan Graham and Gordon Matta-Clark.

Despite the diversity of subject matter, the essays are connected by shared theoretical threads. The title of the seminar series takes into account Bordieu’s structuralist concept of habitus, the habitual actions which order our social experience of a space, thereby transforming it into a place. The book also emphasises a phenomenological approach, drawing on the theories of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger to address the difficult question of the experience of inhabitation, as it exists between mind and matter. The navigation of these two theoretical approaches, structuralist and phenomenological, yields two central questions: that of the relative agency between the structure and the inhabitant, and whether the experience of inhabitation depends on the presence of a physical structure.

The idea that buildings might serve as agents of social transformation is initially introduced by Linda Hulin and the question of agency is directly addressed by Jane Anderson. Referring to her own practice at Oxford Brookes  and to the work of the Japanese architectural firm Studio Bow Wow, she argues that architectural practice is constrained by the conventional interpretation of inhabitant as active “subject” and building as passive “object”. She calls instead for a “conceptual shift” which would allow for a more fluid interpretation of ideas of subject and object, initiating new creative opportunities. Furnitecture, with its ability to change the spatial layout of a room and direct movement and action, is the exemplification of such a theory, and the question of agency is further alluded to in Catherine Richardson’s essay which examines how the spatial layout of domestic space has influenced the way that death is managed and attested to.

The essays which provide the most comprehensive examination of the question of whether physical structures are a prerequisite for inhabitation are those grouped under the heading “Diminished Inhabitation”. As Damian Robinson studies the material traces of the lives of seafarers and Rachael Kiddey proposes that a space of inhabitation is shaped by social activity rather than physical boundaries, the heading of the section is called into question. Rather than being “diminished” it appears that structures of inhabitation might in fact be intensified in such circumstances, as deliberate actions and spatial arrangements make up for the lack of material fixity.

These academic studies are rigorous and wide-ranging, implicitly conversing in a way which allows for a dynamic approach to established theories. However, while most of the essays in the book employ a relatively straightforward methodology and approach to their subject matter, two essays in particular appear to strive less for solubility than to demonstrate the difficulty of deconstructing the different elements which constitute our idea of inhabitation. They apply what the American architect Eric Own Moss, in his book Gnostic Architecture (1999), refers to as glue: “a cerebral underground [that] designates a crisscross of emotions and  ideas, piled over many years. The interconnections are so fine, so precarious, and so can’t-be-numberedish, that it is not possible to break in. Start to disable the glue and it’s gone: it’s psychologically inviolable”.

That sense of densely woven interconnectedness is present in Rebecca Devers’ essay “Bachelor Pads and Miracle Kitchens” which examines the coexistence of fantasy and reality inherent in the domestic space designed for the playboy, a space which, Devers argues, readers are invited to inhabit by way of narrative. Such narratives might take the form of a short story published in the magazine, or an interior illustration indicating key USPs (invisible kitchen, king size bed); together the two modes of storytelling work to instil the reader with a sense of the playboy’s habitus. As demonstrated by the 1954 feature “Playboy’s Progress”, to know how the playboy might move around his apartment is to know how to render him real: to will him into being, in the form of oneself. The effectiveness of the magazine’s approach – its creation of an enduring icon – rests on the reader’s desire and ability to imagine themselves into another form, both spatial and bodily.

In “Don’t Try This At Home: Artists’ Viewing Inhabitation”, Stephen Walker examines three conceptual artworks which invert our interpretation of inside and outside, public and private, opaque and transparent: House by Rachel Whiteread (1993), Alteration to a Suburban House by Dan Graham (1978) and  Splitting, by Gordon Matta-Clark (1974). These works expose the strangeness of the way we view domestic space, playing with void and opacity to invert the invisible and make enclosed spaces permeable. By bringing together these three structures which, like the Moriyama House, “operate at that moment when the mechanics of viewing are revealed”, Walker gives the chance to witness these installations by proxy, text and image creating a structure which offers its own experience of interpretation.

These essays preserve the mystery of their subject matter, addressing paradox on its own sticky terms. In doing so, they edge closer to that consciousness of the experience of inhabitation which might more easily be accessed via a spatial form – as exemplified by the Moriyama House. However, while reading the book I couldn’t help but feel that most of the essays served as a sort of groundwork, rigorously preparing the earth without initiating the reader into a truly new understanding of a complex concept. But perhaps that understanding takes place in praxis – how, after reading the book, an architect might design a structure which allows for a more flexible approach to modern life, how a sociologist might initiate a policy which takes into account the experience of the homeless. How we observe ourselves “at life”, inside and out.

Bêka & Lemoine
Moriyama-san (still), 2017
© Bêka & Lemoine

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Matilda Bathurst is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa.