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Five Ways to Change the World
by Katy Purviance on 12/28/09 @ 10:54:07 pm
Categories: Articles | 799 words | 3141 views

In his article, “Five Ways to Change the World,” Jonathan Massey suggests that building a house is a good way to change the world.

Houses can be pivots of social transformation. They provide the context for many consumption decisions; they shape the patterns of daily life and intimate relationships. Buckminster Fuller recognized the centrality of the house to social change when, in 1928, he set out to transform how we produce and consume housing, with the goal of improving family life. Inspired by Henry Ford’s Model T, which made automobiles affordable through assembly-line production, Fuller designed a lightweight, super-efficient aluminum dwelling intended for mass production in single- and multi-family versions. A standardized hexagonal floor plan would have provided occupants of the Dymaxion House with a suite of well-lit, well-ventilated rooms furnished with modern kitchen, bathroom and media equipment. The structure was designed to hang from a central mast by cables akin to nautical rigging, allowing one or more floors to be stacked up and suspended above the ground. Dymaxion housing was to transform human society by systematically reducing the waste of resources from energy and materials to labor and time.

Unlike the automobiles that inspired them, Fuller’s house never went into production. If it had, and had it worked as Fuller planned, the Dymaxion would have liberated families from dependence on electrical and gas networks, water supplies, sewer systems and roads as well as the social and financial systems — above all mortgages — that bond us to what Fuller considered a form of serfdom. Airlifted by dirigible from factory to building site, its mast anchored in a crater excavated by a bomb, his “autonomous dwelling unit” would have been installed wherever its owner found the best opportunities for work and leisure. In Fuller’s vision, these mobile dwellings would have created a self-regulating labor market as workers were freed to follow jobs. The state would have dissolved into a self-optimizing industrial economy in which consumers dealt directly with transnational corporations. Rather than maintaining large houses and working to meet mortgage payments, families would have been free to dedicate themselves to creative pursuits and domestic pleasures. [3]

Much as I admire the ambition of Fuller’s utopian propositions, I’ve come to realize that it takes a lot of grit to live even a little bit differently from others. Commissions for individual houses have perennially afforded architects and clients opportunities to experiment with new modes of living. In Women and the Making of the Modern House, Alice T. Friedman examines instances in which architects and female clients produced unusual houses that shifted the rhythms and rules of daily life. My favorite among her case studies is the house in Utrecht, designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1924 for the widow Truus Schröder, who was seeking a flexible, egalitarian environment for herself and her children. The intersecting floor plates, beams, walls and windows of this modernist landmark are best known as compelling applications of De Stijl principles to architectural design. More importantly, though, the house’s multipurpose furniture and sliding wall panels enabled family members to define the degrees of intimacy or withdrawal they wanted. By granting occupants the freedom to reshape the house through moment-by-moment choices about how to live separately and together, the Schröder House demonstrated the capacity of architecture to open up alternative possibilities for everyday home life. [4]

King's Road House, Rudolph M. Schindler, 1921-1922.

The equally innovative King’s Road House in West Hollywood, California, also shows how architecture can foster new modes of living. Vienna-born architect R. M. Schindler designed this double house to accommodate himself and his wife Sophia as well as another couple, Clyde and Marian Chace, and two newborns. Four large rooms, built of concrete and redwood, have sliding walls that open onto partially enclosed patios and gardens. A single kitchen, garage and guest suite adjoin these rooms. Envisioned as studios for living and creative work for the four adults in this cooperative household, they provided each person with a discrete space that could be opened to or separated from the others. Narrow glass strips between concrete wall-slabs ensured that even with all the partitions closed, no one was completely sealed off from the household, and the shared kitchen encouraged collaboration in the rituals of daily life. Built in 1921, the house reflected traditional gender roles: the women’s studios adjoined the kitchen because, as Schindler noted, “the wives take alternate weekly responsibility for dinner menus.” Nonetheless, the King’s Road House established an unconventional model of domesticity at a scale somewhere between that of the nuclear family and the community. [6]

Should you ever be fortunate enough to build your own house, keep in mind how domestic architecture orders daily life and try changing the game.

Other suggestions include Vote, Shop, Raise a Barn, and Throw a Party.

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places where you could probably learn more about designing and building in just a few days than I did after a year of grad school

Know of some others I can add here? Let me know. Have you already visited some of these places...or planning on it? Let me know and I will feature your story and your photos here!

I am starting a new kind of architecture school. Unlike most architecture schools, you wouldn't have to submit GRE scores or good grades or letters of recommendation. You wouldn't have to put the rest of your life on hold for 3 to 5 years. You wouldn't have to accrue tens of thousands of dollars in debt. At my architecture school, anyone could come for a few weeks and learn how to build a house with their own two hands. My teachers would take skills and concepts from some of these other workshops I've listed above... except classes would be held year-round to make it easy to fit into your schedule. I would have a number of different campuses around the country that would teach building designs appropriate to the local climate. And I need your help. Can you donate land for a campus? Can you dotate books for a library? Can you teach a workshop? Can you provide start-up capital? Let me know.

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