PRINT Summer 2007


IN HER NEW BOOK, Domesticity at War, published by MIT Press this spring, architectural historian Beatriz Colomina writes that “war does not end but evolves, and so does architecture”—as does our fundamental experience of space, she might have added. Colomina’s study looks specifically at the cold-war era in the United States, where domestic environments in the wake of World War II were, she says, made totally modern both in material and mind-set—inscribed by military technologies being assimilated into daily life and by a changed awareness of global geopolitics requiring a normalization (or “domestication”) of societal conditions that might otherwise be frightening. Chapter by chapter, Colomina investigates a psychological drama wherein the lawn becomes a battlefield against Japanese beetles and the “house of the future” is cut off from the outside world in its all-encompassing automation—which even privileges images of the landscape over real-life views, figuring a revised sense of interior and exterior and, subsequently, a new sense of vulnerability, as the latter is increasingly enmeshed in the former.

Yet any historical reference to war and its manifestations in the domestic setting inevitably points to our cultural situation today. With this in mind, we invited Colomina to join cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha for a speculative discussion looking not only at her cold-war subject but also at the “evolution” of war and architecture—and our attendant formulations and experiences of space—even as that evolution is happening now. Indeed, the following conversation, with its attention to surveillance, security, and globalization, is presented here as something of an extension to numerous other discussions in these pages regarding a pervasive sense of mediated experience today—issuing from, to cite just one cause, the commodification of everyday life down to its most intimate spheres—negotiations of which are everywhere discernible in contemporary art. (A common strand: Experience now often seems staged, such that viewers are given to feel they occupy a kind of space that is at once real and representational.) To engage any such questions of mediated experience would seem rather beside the point without some attention to the ongoing war in Iraq and, more broadly, the so-called war on terror, an embattled condition that seems everywhere and nowhere—somehow beyond representation—and so perhaps grasped more readily when considered in conjunction with the experiences of an earlier time.

Tim Griffin

TIM GRIFFIN: I’m tempted to begin with your ending, where there is a sense of allegory as you create a contemporary context for your cold-war subject. Could you revisit your thinking there?

BEATRIZ COLOMINA: The book was written between the two wars in Iraq. Of course, this was unintentional. I found it almost unbelievable that I was preparing a lecture in Chicago about the Underground Home—a habitat designed during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a House of the Future for the 1964 New York World’s Fair—right when the first Gulf War was beginning. The lecture, which became the first chapter I wrote for this book, reflected on our experience of the conflict because I was particularly struck by the media’s uncertainty about what the war would look like. The media were supposed to make the war visible, but none of the pundits had any idea what the war would look like! It made me think the house with a television was already mobilized, in the sense that an image of war could enter before it was even identified as such. Recall that CNN, during the first Gulf War, kept advertising itself as the network that “brings the front line to your living room.” Architecture is always about the definition of what is inside and outside—what is public and what is private—and here was a complete collapse of these terms.

HOMI K. BHABHA: I think this question you’ve posed of what the current war would look like is extremely interesting, because the problem is fundamentally related to the casus belli of Iraq: Nobody ever found weapons of mass destruction. What, then, is the frame of representation going to be? There has always been a problem about how to represent this war, because the casus belli is missing.

GRIFFIN: But this war has also been beyond representation because its borders are infinitely expanded. It has been subsumed by the rhetoric of a “war without borders,” and how does one create an image of that? With the first Gulf War, we may not have known what the war would look like, but the notion of there being a frame—and of there being something to see—was still taken for granted.

BHABHA: As someone living in Britain at the time and watching television there, I remember thinking that the media had found the image for the first Gulf War: a Tomahawk cruise missile that would approach the hotel where all the journalists were staying but would then suddenly turn and hit its target. The video was supposed to demonstrate the rationalization of warfare and the avoidance of civilian injuries—and it succeeded in creating that sense of a tightly targeted war in viewers, though it was hardly the truth.

In fact, when I saw the title Domesticity at War, the first thing to strike me was the destruction of domesticity in Iraq today—and not only in terms of actual domestic space, but also that sphere of civility within which people bring their personal desires into the public space, the public and private sphere of civil society. Places that were real sites of orientation for centuries, like the flower market or the book market, have been obliterated. But to get a sense of this reality, the best sources are actually blogs by Iraqis, like one written under the alias Riverbend: There one reads about the lack of electricity, how to get water, how it’s so hot you cannot bear it and yet you cannot leave the house, what it means to get to school or not get to school or to celebrate a birthday. Every time somebody goes out you ask, “Are they going to come back?”

COLOMINA: Despite, or perhaps because of, the radical doubt about what constitutes an image of contemporary war, certain images are pushed forward to cover the huge gap in perception, to cover the private specifically. During the first Gulf War, the initial imagery in American newspapers was of missiles exploding in the sky, which journalists compared to the Fourth of July. Yet there immediately was a contrast between the public spectacle of the missile—compared to a celebration, as if there were no damage—and representations of the interior, whether it was of Saudis in their bunkers, Israelis at home with their gas masks on, or even Americans at home watching television the first night of the conflict. This actually defined the new public and private of that war. You could speak similarly about September 11, which in many ways also redefined our sense of what is private and what public.

GRIFFIN: We’ve talked about that issue in terms of the first and second wars in Iraq. When it comes to the relationship of interior and exterior, public and private, is there a historical counterpoint to consider here that might illuminate our contemporary situation?

COLOMINA: It might be worthwhile to go back to the cold-war years, because, as Homi suggests, we tend to think about literal damage when considering domesticity and war. We less often consider whether the scars of war might exist even where the battle does not take place—as was the case in the United States after World War II. The soldiers returning from that war inhabited a different kind of space; they came home with a different mind-set. This soldier-citizen was a more global citizen. He went to the South Pacific; he went to Europe; he’s someone to whom an international architecture was more acceptable. As John Entenza, the editor of the magazine Arts & Architecture, wrote at the time, the soldier familiar with the mechanical precision of war would desire that precision more than picket fences.

And yet attending this apparent openness is a defensive attitude, a sense of being permanently on guard—which, significantly, is masked by a smile. While Europeans, somber after the war, favored Brutalist architecture, Americans turned to glassy transparency, which, in the family house, was exemplified by the picture window—but right there under the lawn were the bomb shelters, tucked away in medicine cabinets the tranquilizers, everything that couldn’t be spoken about. Transparency suggested that there was nothing to hide, yet everything was hidden quite precisely. You cannot separate these two realities.

GRIFFIN: An irony now is that the life of the soldier today is something of a hidden figure in American culture. His status as a witness is more localized. But before dealing with that invisibility, we should probably consider further the imagery you’re touching on, as well as its sources. What was the cultural substance of transparency then, and what is that of invisibility now?

COLOMINA: Everybody was working for the military during World War II. The architects were on the front or else developing new materials, techniques, and mass accommodations for people and equipment, which were subsequently applied to domestic uses, with radical effects. And this is always the case with military technologies. Radio, for example, comes into the domestic space of the house right after World War I, transforming what is inside and what is outside, public and private. I mean, in the middle of the living room there is suddenly this little machine giving you news of the world. And after World War II, of course, there’s television, which completely transforms domesticity by bringing the public into the domestic space and forcing the house to reorganize itself entirely in relation to this new front.

It’s a condition, in fact, illustrated very well by Martha Rosler’s collages from her series “Bringing the War Home” [1967–72], in which images of the Vietnam War from Life magazine and daily newspapers are seen through the picture windows of clean, modern houses she found in architectural magazines. Here, windows to the outside include the window of the television set, which, along with those of newspapers and popular magazines, allows images to enter your house. These new views radically affect the architecture of the space.

BHABHA: I think our situation today creates a different quality of insecurity, which people negotiate through the color-coded National Security Threat Advisory that is a metaphor for an invisible, yet regulated, threat from the “outside,” whose spores have become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. September 11 was so significant not simply because there was terrorism—we had that already with Oklahoma City—but because it was terrorism as a kind of foreign virus. There was the breaking of a boundary, a national boundary. In these previous wars, which were national wars, television brought the news home. But the television was a glass, a kind of protection. The modern house, with its high ceilings and steel frames, could feature glass because that danger was not proximate, coming as it did from outside.

COLOMINA: Right. As a Swedish reporter said at the time, the picture windows of postwar American houses bespeak security, because the owner can afford to dispense with brick.

BHABHA: And so in the Rosler image, the outside is brought as close as possible, but there is still an inside and an outside. Although you see the outside, it has been brought as close as it can be brought. There is a curtain that can be opened or closed, and there is the plate-glass window that allows you to see outside but also protects you. Now, however, the problem is that neither the curtain exists nor the plate glass. Whereas in the cold war, the sense of inside and outside, of nationalism and internationalism, was binary, our current situation is much more problematic—or liminal, in a word. The media exists in some kind of liminal space, for instance, embedded rather than independent. Then there is the motility of Al Qaeda, which is everywhere and nowhere: We couldn’t find traces of Al Qaeda in Iraq, but—to quote Richard Perle and George Tenet’s narrative—we “know” that the Iraqi regime, being the Iraqi regime, must have worked with Al Qaeda operatives. Our images of Osama bin Laden seem taken on a movie set, both unsituated and unlocated—with nothing but stone, carpets, and a prophetlike figure speaking out of nowhere. Even the distinction between soldier and civilian is profoundly complicated—and here we must think of suicide bombers, whose strategy is to be both insider and outsider at once. Similarly, the policy of preemption requires that you move in militarily just before you are attacked—suggesting the right to be both inside and outside any territory that seems a danger.

GRIFFIN: There is no unified field or coherent front. How might one describe this experience of space?

BHABHA: Talking about an earlier phase of globalization, Hannah Arendt argued that there was nothing outside the global, so that any demarcation of an inside or outside under the sign of the global is an interstitial movement. The barbarians are produced from within the interstices of the global at once inside and outside.

COLOMINA: Yet I think it was already in the psyche of people living through the cold-war period. The collapse of inside and outside is a historical process. Each war throughout the twentieth century can be identified with different forms of media—an evolution from newspapers and television to computers and cell phones—that redefine our sense of public and private, inside and outside. In that regard, I was very curious about your earlier comment on the blogs in Iraq, because they are unprecedented for their instantaneity. But it is still part of a continuum. If you think about the cruelty and brutality of World War I, much of it had to do with the fact that the generals were, for the first time in history, directing at a distance by phone. Stephen Kern wrote about this in The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1980 [1986], saying that World War I was won by “coups de telephone.” But generals gave orders sending people to certain death, which would not have happened had they been seeing the situation firsthand. Decision making was separated from the waging of war itself.

BHABHA: All wars are in some way media wars, because there is always a certain kind of distance. My one concern would be the term evolution. I see different mediations.

COLOMINA: And after a war, these mediations are domesticated and affect the state of architecture.

BHABHA: Or the surveillance of societies themselves. I think it was Mike Davis who once noted that the surveillance techniques for Los Angeles, for example, were borrowed from Northern Ireland.

COLOMINA: There is always a recycling of military technology into the urban landscape, transforming its architecture, literally and psychologically.

GRIFFIN: What would you say are the unique manifestations in contemporary architecture of conditions established with the new war? I say this while realizing it’s important that we speak about domestic spaces in Iraq, or else we’re navel-gazing.

COLOMINA: I think 9/11 made evident something that was already there, which is the role of cell phones in defining the space of the city. I mean, where are you when you are in an intimate conversation going down Seventh Avenue? Are you there or in another space, public or private? In 9/11, I was struck by the coexistence of the relentless image of planes going into the towers, repeated endlessly on every television channel, and the most intimate exchanges taking place by cell phone between people trapped in the towers and their loved ones, which is unprecedented—a final good-bye in a situation being watched globally. In that sense, the cell phone becomes a last vestige of domesticity, and there is an exacerbation of the two realms, private and public, spectacular and intimate. We’re living in that kind of space today.

In terms of Iraq, we would have to understand more fully the role of the telephone and the Internet. Many soldiers are in regular telephone and e-mail contact with their families, which is already very different from posting a letter. Firsthand accounts of war, such as diaries of Holocaust survivors, for example, have always existed, but now they are instantaneous.

GRIFFIN: Of course, last month the US government closed down soldiers’ blogs and cut off their access to YouTube, recognizing perhaps that the kind of collapse of near and far in the wake of World War I has become exponentially more powerful.

BHABHA: That very poignant moment, in which people who knew they were very unlikely to survive were able to contact others on the phone, finds an analogue in letters from soldiers as far back as the First World War, and even during the American Civil War: “I may not be here tomorrow, but I want you to know I love you.”

COLOMINA: That’s what I compare it to in the book. But we should add that now cell phone exchanges get airtime. They become absolutely public, as your phone is your camera is your e-mail is your Internet portal. The ways in which the private becomes instantly public are multiplying. The blogs that you were talking about in Iraq are also private accounts of people living in a war situation posted nevertheless as a form of public knowledge.

BHABHA: But the blogs are meant to become public from the beginning. They want to say, “These are our personal lives and we want you to know what is happening. We are the representative peoples of what you call ‘failed societies.’”

The real question, which I think you’re touching on, is whether we need new terms to talk about a contemporary phenomenon, which some people have tried to discuss in terms of spectacularization and performativity. In this regard, it seems to me that one of the most interesting figures for us to consider might be the traffic jam in Baghdad—which a number of blogs say is the spectacular new social formation, erasing public and private. And why does it happen? Because of security and surveillance: Everybody is stopped at these roadblocks; every car is searched. But the line of surveillance is also the line of attack: It is a peacekeeping practice, but also the place where most kidnappings and bombings take place. Given the motility of Al Qaeda, what is inside and outside becomes a question as well of where should we be and not be.

GRIFFIN: And how is this spatial revision manifested outside Iraq?

BHABHA: The very temporality, the nature, the texture of public space has changed—in our lives not so much in traffic jams but in the long queues we have when traveling.

Frontiers, borders, customs areas—all these are the flash points of what is inside and outside a nation. Until now, identity here was basically a matter of documentation. Your identity documents proved that you were who you said you were. Now there is a search for an identity that seeks to find out what your intentions are, what your cultural “proclivities” or religious “zeal” might force you to do. At the borders, in the traffic jam, there is this new biopolitics afoot—a move from information and identity to intention and harm. That’s why at borders we see, for example, new technologies that detect how the irises of your eyes react during questioning. The truth is revealed by the iris. Once these possibilities are open, particularly in the name of security, you can’t go back. They will become absorbed into newer apparatuses of authorization and authority.

GRIFFIN: Blade Runner realized.

COLOMINA: Like a lie detector for the eyes.

GRIFFIN: Beatriz, your book discusses the role of X-rays in cold-war architecture. This sounds less obviously intrusive and yet more intrusive—and the tip of the iceberg, since new body-scan technology is being rolled out at airports, leaving the traditional X-ray behind.

COLOMINA: In Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media [1996], I actually wrote about the transformation of the private and public in the context of the years around World War I to show that you can’t separate architecture from what is happening in the rest of society. When we speak about the X-ray as a form of surveillance, it implies an architectural transformation as well: The technology made the inside of the body visible to the public for the first time, and simultaneously architecture decides—and it’s no coincidence—to expose what had always been private, behind wall or brick. Buildings start looking like X-rays, and this is a modern rendering implicitly linked to the X-ray and the fear of tuberculosis at the beginning of the last century. What I’m trying to say is that architecture, like literature, is part of our culture, and we have to be able to discuss it in those terms.

BHABHA: I’m glad you brought up the literary, as I would like to pose a question that is partly metaphorical and partly phenomenological in nature. Specifically, I’m wondering about Giorgio Agamben’s idea of the camp as being a kind of archetypal habitus of our times, as a site of modernity and modern “progress.” In World War II, you had concentration camps, and now you have massive refugee camps due to genocide. Regarding the latter, there both is and isn’t a difference between the refugee camp—as an international legal and ethical phenomenon—and the national version of it, which are the sprawling slums that actually designate poverty and injustice in the domestic space. But today I am thinking that we need some other figure to consider the architecture of the endless war we are in—and by endless I’m simply echoing individuals from George Bush to Susan Sontag (in the very last piece she wrote) saying that we don’t know when this war will ever end. With the figure of the camp there is some sense of containment, but what—talking figuratively, metaphorically about architecture—would give shape to the porosity of our moment and its paranoia, the terror and the need for protection?

COLOMINA: The figure I have in mind is nomadic. Walls are not protecting you any longer. I was very struck by an object for sale in the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art’s store; it’s called Final Home Jacket, and it is designed by Kosuke Tsumura and marketed as clothing to be used as a portable “home” in the event of a catastrophe. It has pockets that can be stuffed with newspapers for warmth, and spaces for everything you need to survive: mask, windup radio, maps, food, tape, flashlight, and cell phone. Protection is no longer a house. It’s these lightweight accessories.

BHABHA: It’s a second skin. So is this a deeply solipsistic situation where you say, “All you can do is save yourself”?

COLOMINA: Well, in many ways it is. When you pass one of these security points in the airport, do you feel that you’re traveling with other people or that you’re on your own, with your own insecurities and fears? At the airport, they once let you pass through customs and security with other people. No longer.

BHABHA: Whenever I’m traveling through, say, Frankfurt, where security is overpolite, and I am asked, “Could I please . . . ,” I almost shout, “Yes, yes, absolutely. Search me, and search the other man even more!” But let’s push this a little further. There is, I think, a new kind of individuation here, which requires that we rethink and revise our notion of the biopolitical.

COLOMINA: True enough; the forms of defense today—like blogs—take the format of an individual narrative. I grew up in Spain under Franco, where the defense was always collectivization—demonstrations, strikes, publication, murals. It was always about the group.

BHABHA: Collectivization was literally people coming together and being in the street in a demonstration, making a picture or mural or film. But, in a way, this pluralization effect now is located in the media.

COLOMINA: Yes, you’re right.

BHABHA: I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. When you write a blog, you immediately assume a community of bloggers. When people do eBay, they want to buy their own little chinoiserie, but they immediately assume a notion of community—so the computer terminal gives you a paradoxical individuated access to collectivization, which is now not so much about actual bodies but about a medium.

COLOMINA: The new public, so to speak, is built out of mass privates. And the new private is totally public.

BHABHA: Very often these new mediatic communities are communities of similitude. In other words, you want to be where others have your own interests—and so here we must ask what constitutes this emerging body. What are the ethical intimations of this new form of seeing oneself and apprehending others? Individualism, which we spent so much time attacking back when we considered it to be central to a bourgeois myth of autonomy, was nevertheless the basis of a certain kind of democracy. It may have had the imperfections of that democracy, but it was part of that democracy. “One person, one vote” is not simply saying, “Fuck off, I don’t care about you. I want what’s mine.” It’s not about the possessiveness of the vote. “One person, one vote” is about the multiplication of the democratic effect. But it seems to me that now, if you can so pick and choose through these more mediated forms who your cohort and collectivity will be, where your collectivity will be—if it is so open at the same time that we are talking about the de-sovereignization of the national community—then I want to propose that public and ethical life aim for similitude, even if communities appear more erratic, eccentric, and focused on their own interests.

COLOMINA: Again, seeing this in terms of a historical time frame, the seemingly hyperconfident assertion of national identity by the United States during the cold war, whether it be through foreign policy or dream kitchens, was actually driven by anxiety—which reflects, in the end, anxiety that there are no clear borders anymore. The fetish of private space, of individual rights, is a product of this anxiety.

BHABHA: Still, I wonder whether we are seeing the emergence of a new ethic of human rights. However sensitive it is to context, to locality, human rights have as their very legal basis an equivalence of individuals and universalization of cultures. That’s their legal strength, and we cannot deny the legal strength. But this comes out of the politics of difference, not of equivalence. I’ll just give you one example. This year in Davos there was a fascinating experiment on negotiation involving senior journalists, politicians, and businessmen; I was certainly the only professor of literature. We entered a room and we were separated into five so-called tribes and asked to list five values that would identify us as a group, answering questions like “Are you for capital punishment?” and “Are you for an equal wage?” It quickly became clear that although we represented different tribal communities, we had much more in common than what might set us apart or against each other. Then the lights went off and a monster entered the room—really—and said, “The world will end in forty-five minutes unless you can find a form of collective shared governance.” Now, we had three rounds of negotiation involving people who make these sorts of decisions for a living—but what happens? Nobody can agree on anything. Substantive similarities were trumped by stylistic differences. The world ends.

If our search for security is creating what we could call a new solipsism—or if it’s not solipsistic, then a kind of semblance or similitude machine—then something changes. Whereas we used to think much more about equality, now it’s about some form of equivalence. In which case, how do we renegotiate a form of solidarity that encompasses what Étienne Balibar calls “difference-in-equality”?

COLOMINA: These are the issues.

BHABHA: Real issues, because in a state of heightened security and insecurity, the other side of it is paranoia.


BHABHA: And this jacket from the MoMA store, an image of which is in your book, is such an excellent figure. The protectiveness of the body . . . the body is being sealed and everything is being sealed with it. Is this security, or is it mummification—you know, where the ancient Egyptians entombed the bodies with all the clothing and food they needed?

GRIFFIN: And we’re in the next world already.

BHABHA: That’s right. We’re already in the next world.

Homi K. Bhabha is Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of Humanities in the English department at Harvard University; Beatriz Colomina is a professor of architecture and founding director of the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University.

Tim Griffin is the editor of Artforum.