PRINT April 1989


Future Architecture

HUMANS INHABIT—NESTS, caves, tents, houses, or cubes piled one on top of another. One might even say that the act of inhabiting is inevitable because people need habit, because experience only becomes meaningful to us through habitual repetition. Theory of information tells us, for example, that it is only through repetition that a “noise” becomes information. Knowledge of information theory, however, is not required to understand that a wanderer who has no habitat will process information differently from those of us who have permanent homes. Medieval thinkers believed that we were all such aimless tourists, homines viatores; that we had lost our heavenly home and must roam erratically through this valley of tears called “the world.” For this reason, Maimonides wrote his Guide to the Perplexed in the 12th century. Today, we have our Guides Michelin when we leave our homes. And yet still we feel unsheltered, exposed, vulnerable. Perhaps this is because our houses are no longer habitable, and we need to look critically at our homes.

A house has been, traditionally, a roof and four walls. The roof is a shield, designed to protect the inhabitants from whatever is above, from what is superior, be it Nature or a Superior Being. Those who hide under the roof are subjects of (and subject to) superior forces, and hope that those forces, be they hail or commandments, will not find them. The builder of roofs, the architect, used to be the most important of all the artists. But we no longer believe in superior forces. We are sovereign people, nobody’s subjects, and therefore no longer need such an artist.

A wall also protects the inhabitant from what is outside. It has two sides: the outside faces the “dangerous foreigner” who threatens to invade; the inside faces the indigenous native. The Berlin wall shows how this dual system works: the outside is political, the inside keeps a secret. But we are no longer convinced that the danger is outside, and, further, we do not like to be imprisoned within secrets. We tend to believe that all walls should go down.

But even those of us who still believe in keeping secrets (and in being kept) cannot help but make holes in walls—doors and windows—because even patriots like to take a stroll and look out at what happens. Windows provide vistas; through them we see the outside from the inside. The Greeks called such a vision theoria: you need not get wet while looking. But we are no longer convinced that such an uncommitted, “pure” vision provides knowledge. Windows are no longer useful.

Doors permit exits and entrances. One goes out through the door to conquer the world, and loses oneself there; one comes back through the door to find oneself, and loses the world. Hegel called this pendular motion the “unhappy conscience.” More problematically, the police (government bureaucracy) may enter through the door, and burglars (private interests) through the window. Doors are not happy inventions.

All in all, in fact, the house as we know it is not a very successful idea—maybe that’s why the house consisting of a roof and four walls belongs only in fairy tales by now. For the global shakeup referred to as the “communications revolution” has reduced that actual structure to ruins. Material and immaterial cables have penetrated it, have made Swiss cheese of it: antennae through the roof, television through the walls, telephones between individual houses. We no longer dwell, but hide in ruins through which blow the blizzards of communications. No use trying to adapt those ruins: a new architecture for people who “survive the revolution” is called for.

To begin, we must relinquish geographical for topological thinking. We can no longer think of a house that is placed somewhere geographically, for instance on a hill near a river. This will not be easy (consider how difficult it was to rethink geography from a plane to the surface of a volume). But we must try, and computer-generated images may help us. Take the solar system as an example. We used to think of Earth as occupying a place within that system. Computer-generated images now demonstrate that Earth is a curve within a wire net called “the gravitational field of the sun.” We could imagine a house as a curve within the wire net called “human relations.” Within that curve, human relations become ever denser, and the house is that point where the relations are densest.

The new house should be “attractive” (in the sense in which Earth is attractive). It should attract ever new human relations. It must be in a constant process of construction. Ever new relations must be its input, and it must process them into information. That information must be transmitted to other houses. The house must become a knot within the human network, a creative knot within which the sum of information at the disposal of humanity (the sum of “culture”) increases—which is to say that it must be a knot built on material and immaterial cables.

This is a dangerous architectural project, for we now know only two forms of connecting cables: nets (example: telephones), or bundles (example: television). If the new house were to be part of a bundle (in Latin, fasces), it would become a support for an as-yet-unimaginable form of totalitarianism. All the houses would then produce or dispose of the same information (in Nazi Germany this was called Gleichschaltung, political coordination and the elimination of opponents). Future architects must take care to avoid such bundling, and to provide for a “dialogical network.” This is a technical problem. Architects (being technicians and artists) are competent to solve it.

But there is a greater nontechnical—existential—danger. People who inhabit such houses will have nowhere to hide (no roof, no wall); they will have nothing to cling to. They can do nothing but reach out their hands and try to hold onto the hands of other people. And thus, hand in hand, face the void without any guarantee that they won’t be swallowed up in it. We must accept that danger, because the alternative is even more dangerous: to go on hiding within the ruins of houses become uninhabitable, or to roam about in motor cars. We must either risk the dangers in becoming upright creators within the void, or continue to settle for the limits of being perpetual squatters.

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at 550 Paulo University and at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. He has written various books on modern communications. He contributes regularly to Artforum.