PRINT October 1991


EVEN IN THESE chaotic times, the house and garden endure in every culture as an image of well-being. Most people see the attainment of this fusion of shelter and vegetation as a basic human right, and an expectation of any responsible sociopolitical system. Tragically, the masses of homeless citizens in our cities, the festering ghettos, rural poverty, and the ravages wrought by architecture on the natural environment attest to the inaccessibility of this dream for all but the privileged few. At the same time that the domestic opulence illustrated in the proliferation of shelter magazines nourishes our wildest fantasies of the pleasures of house and garden, these images only frustrate a readership with limited economic resources.

Even when the house and garden are financially accessible, the classic or unconscious image of them is rarely realized anymore, especially in Modernist-influenced dwellings. The shelter is there, full of sculptural form; the garden is there, overflowing with plant life; but the two merely coexist, without a trace of philosophical commitment to the fusion of landscape and architecture. This lack of a motivating conceptual idea partakes of a wide range of serious social, psychological, and esthetic problems in domestic architecture of the 1990s. Most basically, since the 1920s, when Le Corbusier advocated a vision of the home as a “machine for living in,” a metaphor for industrial progress, it has been the prevailing tendency for designers to use the dwelling as a laboratory for inventing the future. In the hands of generations of lesser talents this has resulted in either endless caricatures of technological progressivism or academic formalist exercises in the tradition of abstract art. The symbolism, iconography, and social and psychological associations of house and garden have been sacrificed in favor of hermetic design experiments that have no relationship either to today’s collective unconscious or to older associations of shelter and its connections to the natural environment.

A second problem is the residual influence of 19th-century ideas of habitat as a hierarchical composite of spaces, ideas that perpetuate elitism, paternalism, and a kind of domestic isolationism. By viewing nature as something to be “conquered” by structure, for example, or by orchestrating an interior so that the kitchen is primarily a place of domestic servitude and female occupancy, contemporary architects and builders have preserved the house as a microcosm of an increasingly manipulative and oppressive social order.

The entire idea of the house needs to be reconsidered in the context of present-day psychology and, I believe, of the global environmental-protection movement. For this is an age of information and of ecology (the ages of industry and technology, though far from moribund, are in recession), and we need buildings that respond to it. This shift of emphasis demands a concerted move away from orthodox formal concerns toward a new architecture of psychological and nature-oriented associations, not necessarily of Western origin.

Any manifesto (like those of the early 1920s) proposing architecture as the solution to the world’s ills would be pretentious and irrelevant today. We can, however, ask questions and make observations. We note, for example, the widespread desire, in our culture and in others, for some form of detached dwelling surrounded by a garden. Yet population growth and the inequitable distribution of wealth make this dream a virtual impossibility for the majority, who must inhabit mass housing blocks that offer no individual identity in shelter and no access to landscape. (International imbalances in wealth, and the patterns of migration they encourage, are directly connected to the prevalence of this kind of housing.) At the same time, as third world nations follow the development path of the first world, and lay claim to the symbols and privileges of affluence, they will undoubtedly duplicate our own assaults on the environment. The new freedoms discovered as certain societies turn to democracy, in fact, may only accelerate an ecological disaster already underway through the rapid growth of polluting industries, greater demands for fossil fuels, and the destruction of forests.

The primary route to global solutions for such problems is a combination of internationally coordinated efforts by scientists and others in industry, government, and public action groups. Architecture can reinforce the mission of these agencies, though more as a responsive monitor than as an aggressive force for change in itself. Buildings can be powerful in projecting public messages and advocating ecologically responsible construction practices. In past civilizations where the purpose of buildings was to project a consensus imagery—medieval churches and palaces, for example—it was implicit that architecture was an art, capable of communicating social and religious information.

In the 20th century, with architecture’s rejection of narrative and of symbolic iconography, this function was lost in the confusion of roles that buildings had to play in public life. True, Modernists everywhere found considerable symbolic meaning in structural and formal components. At the same time, however, the word “design” emerged as primary in describing the processes of architecture, which was perceived as a synthesis of economic, service, and esthetic functions, or some form of mediated accommodation between them. Design, in fact, is widely considered a compromise of art in deference to function. But art—culturally responsive, intuitive, and conceptually based subordinates the constraints of service and practicality.

If the new house and garden are to emerge as chroniclers of the world environmental movement, then the shift to architecture as art makes a lot of sense. Architecture as art can embrace such notions as the communication of social meaning, on levels both explicit and unconscious, and the development of a philosophical fusion of nature and building. One has only to observe the proliferation of oppressive, impractical, and ecologically destructive houses and housing, all built in the name of design and functionalism, to see the value of pursuing alternatives.

It seems to me self-evident that nothing will significantly improve the state of habitat without a global political commitment to reducing the gap between the rich world and the poor one. The new objectives would also have to include a sane policy toward natural resources based on the equitable sharing of carbon rights, the monitoring of pollution, massive greening programs for cities, the regrowth of destroyed forests, and financial benefits to municipalities and individuals building energy-wise, green-oriented structures. Unfortunately, it is probably unrealistic to be confident that in the present world order such intelligence will prevail. But the architect can at least begin to develop ideas and images that will influence and motivate societies in that direction.

With the exception of the “organic architecture” of Frank Lloyd Wright, 20th-century dwellings have offered few persuasive, theoretically and philosophically based approaches to the fusion of nature and architecture. It was a conceit of early Modernism that if the house were cleansed of its residual symbols of domesticity, a new vision of living space would emerge. Unhampered by historical baggage and conceived in the image of the machine, this revolutionary, almost abstract house would liberate humanity from the past by programming domestic life as smoothly as the running of an engine. More recently, in the 1970s and ’80s, architects reacted against the sterility of abstraction and minimalism by resurrecting the 19th-century imagery of the house. Mostly, though, these Postmodernists merely superimposed a pastiche of historical references over Modernist underpinnings. The result was a kind of cardboard classicism that quickly degenerated into fashion and style. Postmodernism has been followed in the past few years by “Deconstruction,” an appropriation from literary criticism that uses theoretical tactics to sidestep conventional Modernism and to reject the decorative excesses of the past decade. But again, the Deconstruction movement in general has simply cribbed from an earlier source (this time a 20th-century one, specifically Russian Constructivism), exaggerating its formal devices—rotated axes, tilted walls, fragmented grids—rather than infusing it with a concern for the typology of the house, the psychology of situation, or the ecology issue.

What is consistently apparent is the overwhelming tendency of 20th-century architecture to treat a building’s environment as something apart from or adjacent to it. Connections between a structure and its surroundings through attention to topography, vegetation, regional history, and community character have been regarded as peripheral or subservient to the design process. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye of 1929-30, in Poissy-sur-Seine, outside Paris, must be considered an influential precedent for this pervasive attitude—a dwelling raised on pilotis and dropped onto a pastoral French hillside like a space station. The site is merely the “setting” for the house. This imperious attitude toward landscape has become more prevalent as the century has evolved, ultimately resulting in the arid but ubiquitous potted trees and gridded landscapes that characterize most urban and suburban environments.

Wright was the major pioneer of the environmental and contextual theory and practice of architecture in this century. But his proposals somehow got buried under the deluge of less substantive movements and theoretical positions that succeeded him. The Wright exhibition planned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in two or three years will surely bring on a flood of revisionist thinking and nimble fence-leaping by marginal neo-Modernists and Deconstructivists trying to jump on the bandwagon of ecological advocacy. When this onslaught begins, it will be important to keep in view Wright’s profound observations on the environment as one of architecture’s intrinsic raw materials.

The concept is not unique to Wright’s work; he himself encountered it on visits to Japan during the early part of his career. Wright’s important innovation, in fact, was to transport the Zen Buddhist concept of “inside/outside” to the West, and to adapt it successfully to the American landscape. In Japan, “inside/outside” refers to the structure of the mind and the Mandara, which proposes a doctrine of dual realms—one being the principle and the cause, the other the intelligence and the effect. The Mandara, in Zen Buddhism, is a symbolic reference to a psychic state in which the mind is like a landscape (or universe), with perfect peace and spirituality equated to an understanding of nature. In the famed Ryoan-Ji gardens of Kyoto, for example, Paradise is envisioned as a group of islands—represented by Horai stones—inhabited by blissful, immortal beings. This idyllic archipelago is then, as “borrowed scenery,” translated into the garden and its integrated shelters, an ultimate place of contemplation.

This important philosophical idea, which is embedded deeply in traditional Japanese buildings and gardens, is infinitely useful in converting the informational and ecological pressures of today into a new architecture, an architecture in which the concept of duality informs the flow of space from exterior to interior and the treatment of walls as tissuelike membranes separating and informing the two domains. In the Japanese house and garden, the landscape “converses” with the building. In Wright’s work—the Falling Water House of 1936-37 in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, for example—the fusion of building and nature is interpreted as a structural and visual counterpoint or game between the opaque, stationary essence of the walls and the ephemeral and evolutionary characteristics of the natural environment.

In the age of information and ecology, the inside/outside concept in architecture might be compared to the television. Rather than interpret the house as a formal design, a shelter translated into sculptural shape, we might see it as a kind of filter for the transference of contextual information from one situation to another. The television set, taken as furniture, is only secondarily a designed artifact. Most often formally anonymous, generic, it is rather a medium through which data constantly flows. The new dwelling, likewise, might be based on some simple archetype—the easily identifiable triangular-arched-roof type of shelter, for instance—and might take its entire esthetic content from an interplay among such elements as the adjacent landscape, veillike walls that would invite a dialogue with that environment, and a “cyberspace” interior that would embrace the 1990s quest for ever-widening global communications through fax, computer, and television.

It seems inevitable that as the cybernetic revolution expands, people will tend to increase their work hours in the home, needing less and less to travel to other places (even, perhaps, for pleasure). At the same time, the shape of house and garden could become more centrifugal and pleasurably green, as an enhanced relationship between habitat and vegetation develops to compensate for the “cold spaces” potentially inherent in the invasion of high-tech hardware. We may in the future see more dwellings where the garden is not just next to the building but becomes the building. This may apply even to high rise and other multilevel housing, where architects and residents as well may explore the Japanese notion of landscape as “borrowed scenery,” an aspect of the inside/outside concept involving the transportation of plant life from another place that is then represented through the creation of a microcosmic or symbolic environment. Landscape can be compressed, for example, into small balcony spaces that retain the feeling of a larger domain. This would have both the functional advantage of cleansing city air with plants and the iconographic advantage of greening the high rise.

Another potential scenario for the future looks back beyond the 19th-century role models for house and garden to examine dwelling space in the so-called “primitive” world. The term is absurd, since the ecological sensitivity and adaptive intelligence of most of these civilizations only hyperbolize the insanity of the West’s suicidal assaults on the environment. Characteristic of the primitive house are its total blending with its context in terms of building materials, and its subtle and simple ways of controlling its climate. Also, it focuses on a “center,” usually a place where the spirit of home is believed to dwell—the kitchen and place of family nourishment. This kind of plan is typical of Native American cultures and of several of those in Africa, Asia, and South America. Its value as an archetype is that it evokes the sanctuary of the womb, answering a need for security rooted in the deepest parts of the psyche. This expanded center is also based on cosmology, offering its inhabitants a spiritual sense of place, and on a closeness in family life, far removed from the political stratification encouraged by the segregated spaces—kitchen, living room, bedroom, children’s room—of the Western home. (The Western territorial impulse translates into a continuing obsession with boundaries in everything from race relations to real estate.) Adapting the “primitive” formula in which the kitchen occupies the major part of the domestic interior might ultimately reduce the tendency toward hierarchical family roles that only perpetuate prejudice and discontent.

It is regrettable that the word “deconstruction” has been misrepresented in the design world and the media, since it is comfortably connected to the concept of inside/outside, and many of its propositions apply rather well to the future house and garden. In literary criticism, deconstruction proposes ways of addressing texts so as to free the reader from preset meanings and from an enslavement to conventional interpretation. In this sense it uses language to invade language, and to arrive at new thought. Jacques Derrida refers to “archetexts” as the focus of deconstructive reading—literary works that come to us loaded with subliminal plateaux of recognition and lend themselves to inverse patterns of reading. By substituting the architectural term “archetype” for archetext, one can see how the entire notion of house and garden might be expanded as an idea. This expansion would also be consistent with the conversion of architectural language to adapt to the age of information. If an archetypal house is structured to allow for the invasion of the natural environment (nature’s revenge?), quite a different set of forces is put to work from those of the more passive and conventional relationship between dwelling and vegetation. Living space becomes more like the garden, the garden more like living space. And since nature is always growing, it functions as a continuing critique of consistency. Seen in this way, the house and garden become mutable and evolutionary instead of fixed and stable.

What has been purposely avoided in this discussion, probably because the entire tragedy seems beyond hope at this point, is the plight of the homeless. Still, their example is instructive here. Before the obscene destruction by New York City of the Tompkins Square village, an encampment of homeless people in a traditionally nonconformist neighborhood, this park stood as a powerful and endlessly inventive representation of the human spirit of survival, here manifested in the ability to convert discard into shelter. In the hands of the most inventive participants, the village’s humble structures invariably took the form of archetypal houses, which often included small gardens. This aspiration to establish not only shelter but domestic status through the house appears in every society where the homeless can erect some form of dwelling. In Zambia, for example, an appalling number of people live at the poverty level, many without even sufficient garbage to build shelter. As a result, the poor frequently inscribe small circular territories by drawing in the dirt. They then articulate this area, with whatever bits of trash they can scavenge, to represent the fixtures of the kitchen, a light source, the bed, the sitting room, and the garden. The family will then sit in the center of this roofless symbol—a true invisible dwelling—and declare its identity to the community.

These subliminally inspired gestures by the poor certainly demonstrate the relationship of house and garden to the sustenance of the human spirit. They are the last refuge of territoriality for the soul. It is a humbling task, then, to reconsider the house and garden for the 1990s. Certainly the answers cannot be found in the conventions of Modern design, or, for that matter, in any formulas that exclude the interaction between structure, psychology, and the natural environment. The motivations, the imagery, and the ecological implications of those invisible houses in Zambia hold profound truths about the nature of habitat precisely because they exist more in the mind than in physical presence. This is what the age of information and ecology seems to be all about.

James Wines is an architect and artist who lives in New York. The president of SITE, an architectural firm in the same city, he is currently involved in green projects in a number of countries.