The Strange Home Atlas has been quiet lately and this post can give you hints why.
Some time ago I was looking up old newspaper archives in search for female architects, one of them was Elsa Aropaltio (1914-2008) who is known mostly for her many apartment buildings around Helsinki. To my surprise the search hits were mostly in the small ads. Else Aropaltio, the boss lady, had trouble combining work and family and seemed to be constantly looking fo housemaids and baby-sitters.
Maybe she wasn’t a nice person or maybe good help was hard to find, but right now I can imagine how she was feeling writing those small ads late at night.
The history of communal living is much longer than the history of family living or any other type of household. Nevertheless it is considered so unusual today that the inhabitants of Loppukiri (Finnish for “final spurt”), an independently organized housing community for mid-life and elderly people in Arabianranta, have been answering questions about their daily life since they moved into their house in 2006: How does it work? Does it really work? Japanese politicians, Brazilian television crews, gerontologists, architects, would-be inhabitants all coming to see something that should be a self-evident way of life. And still they were kind enough to open their house to curious people asking them these questions as part of “Urbaanit asuntomessut” this fall so that I had the opportunity to see some of their homes.
The whole concept makes so much sense that it is hard to believe that it is not more common. Frustrated by seeing how hard it was to take care of older relatives and where they had to live the last years of their lives, half a dozen women decided that they want to take those decisions in their own hands and after years of work, planning and getting people together, Loppukiri was built in 2006. The positively inconspicuous building was designed by Kirsti Sivén & Asko Takala Architects in collaboration with the residents. Although it formally works much like a normal housing corporation with the residents as share-holders there is also an important community level: Living together, helping each other, sharing time and space will make many things in life more practical and more meaningful in old age. Apart from clubs, activities and things that can be found in other care homes they most importantly take chores in cooking meals and eat together daily. Sharing a daily meal is considered an important ritual that makes the community tangible.
What impressed me, is that Loppukiri actually gives one possible real-life solution to many problems we are struggling with as a society: loneliness, lack of social networks, an ageing population, a tottering welfare state.
The practical utopia of Loppukiri is distantly but still recognizably related to its more radical predecessors.The nuclear family emerged as an ideal in the late 1800s but was not considered the ideal living unit for a modern society until after the second world war. Especially in the first decades of the 20th century there were a lot of experiments to find the proper way to live in the modern world. The Russian avant-gardists tried to make a revolution in living that would parallel the revolution in society. Its most famous symbol, the Narkomfin (1932) in Moscow failed as a utopia of living a lot faster than the society around it but slowly deteriorating it still houses an array of alternative life styles, as presented in a beautiful web documentary by Luciano Spinelli and Natalia Melikova.
At about the same the swedish architect Sven Markelius worked together with Alva Myrdal to build a house that would emancipate especially the working woman from the burdens of housekeeping and child rearing. A day care centre for children, a communal kitchen, a communal laundromat, hired help and a restaurant combined with minimal maisonettes was the concept that was built in John Ericssongatan in 1935. In the line of “Existenzminimum” the apartments were considered to be mainly spaces of privacy for the parents and every other part of life would take place in the common spaces. It was outrageously radical in its time, but actually included only services we need close to our homes today as well. We only have replaced the food elevator to the downstairs restaurant with a microwave oven, which is a pity.
If you trace the concept of communal living to its most ancient Ur-form you end up here: The Yanomami of southern Venezuela live in large communal circular dwellings called shabono. The building has to be rebuilt every few years and so it grows or contracts in diameter according to the size of the community; as if the house would breath with its inhabitants.
Songs for rainy summer sundays, dedicated to homes.
My Tennessee Mountain Home by Dolly Parton. Country songs of course dominate the category of nostalgic songs about home and the innocence it stands for, but nobody does it quite as well as Dolly.
Our House by Madness. Although a different kind of home, the level of nostalgia is the same: “I remember way back then when everything was true, and when we would have such a very good time, such a fine time, such a happy time.”
Nostalgia now on the verge of self-pity: Alone In My Home by Jack White
Being slightly less emotional and slightly more critical about the petit bourgeois idea of home: Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds
Two Story House by Tammy Wynette and George Jones. In an even more critical approach Tammy and George are shocked when they find out that their physical surroundings are in dissonance with their emotions: “Now we live (yes we live) in a two story house, oh what splendor, but there’s no love about.”
But R. Stevie Moore has clearly overcome nostalgia, self pity and the hollowness of modern life and realized he just likes to stay home: I like to stay home by R. Stevie Moore
20 years before String-shelves, more than 80 years before Ikea’s Stockholm carpets and 85 years before all-white interiors with a balanced set of colourful toys, Aino Marsio-Aalto was posting stuff like this in the 1929 issue of Finnish architecture magazine Arkkitehti. This is an apartment in Lounais-Suomen Maalaistentalo, Turku, built in 1929 and obviously designed by the Aaltos. Most of the furniture is ready-made (looks familiar, doesn’t it?) or designed by the couple themselves.
The crisp coolness of these pictures is even more evident when looking at the other projects presented in 1929. Like this nice house from 1928 in Linnankatu 33, Turku by architect Gunnar Wahlroos, just a few blocks away.
Herrainhuone I imagine to be something between drawing-room and man cave.
This is a mind-blowing example of critical heritage preservation – the Finnish way. The old gristmill and silos in Järvenpää were sold a few years back to developer NCC to be converted into luxury apartments. Then apparently a lot of things happened – neglect, mold, structural damage etc – the silos and the mill were demolished in 2012 and will now be replaced by a brand new apartment building that looks more or less exactly like the old silos.
I’m not sure whether this is fantastic or disgusting – strange definitely.
The house and the apartments themselves are odd enough thanks to the silo-imitating shape of the building. So I guess this is a positive addition to housing development conventions. But I do have one question to the “artist” who made the commercial renderings. Is this really THE picture that will sell these apartments?
Somewhere in the back of my head is also a picture of Ricardo Bofill’s outrageous La Fabrica, a former cement factory that he turned into his home:
Lately I’ve been thinking about the empty space that remains between designing spaces and living in spaces.
Actual living is always different from the presumed average way of life that we have in mind when we plan home. In many ways that is a good thing. I have managed to sunbathe and put a baby to sleep on a balcony considerably smaller than 1500x1700mm. It sometimes feels like the Finnish building reference system RT (comparable to Neufert) is becoming less and less true when it tries to describe our life in simple dimensions of floor space.
RT-cards and other norms were of course created to ensure minimum living standards. They also reveal a major change in housing design in the first half of the 20th century: For the first time any attention was paid to the what was actually done at home – cooking, washing, raising children. A practical modern society needed practical modern homes where mothers could cook and observe their children simultaneously without the help of servants. The design standards also helped to creates standards for a modern way of life.
I was inspired to this line of thought by a 1970’s children book called “Barbapapa’s new house”. After disastrous living experiments the Barbapapa family decides to move to the countryside and build their own house. They use themselves as moulds and create a home that adjusts itself to each Barbapapa’s character and way of life. Here design and building process are identical with living and the ideal home fits the inhabitants seamlessly. There is no empty space between how you live and who you are.
Right after this I read an article by Inara Nevskaya about her search for new softer norms that acknowledge the more subtle changes and overlaps in our use of space; the fact that we actually use the dining table also for doing homework, sewing, driving around it in a toy car and that we actually do not iron in a utility room (RT-measures 3200mmX2400mm) but in the small space between the column and wall in the hallway from where it is possible to see the TV in the bedroom at the same time. Nevskaya sees the gap between design and living and wants to make it smaller by creating more adaptable, more individual design rules. That is one appealing answer to the question. Architecture is already becoming on many levels more like curating: bringing together, catalyzing ideas, giving a form to your own or somebody elses ideas, enabling people to really have what they want.
This is a good and necessary development but I can’t help thinking about the opposite as well. When you live in a space that was not at all designed for the way you live it opens up unforeseen possibilities. Actually the “hard” way of designing without adapting to individual wishes might in some cases give more room for change. What happens when the Barbapapa children become teenagers and start hating their old rooms?
These are unfinished thoughts I’ dabbling with, so there’s no smart conclusion. Still, the inevitable friction created by design intentions and the messiness of life is one of the sources of “strangeness” in the Strange House Atlas. And that can be lovely.
This is not a strange house. But it is being built on a spot in Helsinki that I think would have deserved one. At the end of Suvannontie in Puu-Vallila SRV is building a new apartment building: As Oy Helsingin Lieska (sic). As Oy Kullanmuru and Kesäheila are soon following.
There is nothing really wrong about it except that there it could be anywhere – very efficiently planned, balancing on the thin line between builder-friendly efficiency and poorly planned apartments. That is why it is somehow at odds with the many city layers surrounding it, the red brick and white industrial buildings from the early 1900’s, the small scale of workers houses of Puu-Vallila, the former Primula Bakery that it is attached to.
At a first glance there seem to be almost endless possibilities of how and what to build on this spot and none of these are utilized. It is at the same time too high and too low, too white and too bleak, too careful and too ignorant. In the advertisement it looks so anonymous that it could have been picked from any page in the catalogue “Finnish whitish modernism 1990-2020”.
I really think this place could have deserved a little more. But hopefully it’s just the picture that is bleak and the end result will make me eat my words.
I have always loved the idea of the balcony as something special in a home. Not just a place to air your linen but a place for free thoughts. An outside space that is public and exposed to the world: seasons changing, rain falling, people walking by, sometimes glancing up, you sitting up there looking down at the life below.
I remember reading somewhere that Spanish architecture inherited its glazed bay windows and balconies (miradors) from moorish culture: those balconies were the only allowed space for the women of the household to participate in public life. They could discreetly look down at the street from a window that worked like a veil, at the same time hiding and revealing the person in the window. It also worked from the street side – prospective suitors could get a glimpse of the girl in the window.
Balconies have thus a double function. They open the home to the outside world but also create a protected private space above the street. I always thought the first function is more important. It allows the home to breathe (in the summer very literally so). The first time in spring when it is so warm that you can sit on the balcony an enjoy the sun coming back is always a very special moment.
The second function has always been more important in Finnish building and design that focuses a lot on privacy. So even this one public feature in housing architecture should be designed in a way that nobody can see you sitting on your balcony. At some point the building industry realized that by glazing the balcony you could not only give a sense of increased privacy but you could also use the space as an extra living room in the winter. At the same time the size of balconies grew to the size of an average bedroom and was no longer sleekly supported from the building core but rested on thick concrete pillars. This results in new neighborhoods where all house facades are tapestries of enormous glazed balcony towers, the detailing provided by the one company that produces the glazing, the railings etc. It is not only homogenous to the point if dullness but leads to a cold, hygienic cityscape. The part of the building that should be the most interesting – the border between private and public – has turned into repetitive sterility.
But this is not the whole truth. Glass is transparent so everything that happens on these balconies is visible to the outside in a completely new way. The private space expands into the city and instead of one chair and a flower-pot you can see whole furnished rooms. I’ve heard many builders and some city planners worry about this new transparency as if these new traces of life on the balcony are dirty secrets that must be stopped blurting out into the city unexpectedly.
So actually something new and positively anarchistic has also happened with the uprise of glass balconies. All of a sudden people have an extra room, which is a new kind of showroom for living. Some desperately try to block this with curtains and shades but all around the city there is a new kind of dweller to be seen who embraces this new public space. Glazed balconies are furnished proudly with design objects, furniture that didn’t fit anywhere else, flowers and green houses, big comfy sofas, bikes and children’s toys and made into a display of the inhabitants life style, good taste and living comfort. I especially enjoy the balconies in sheltered homes. They are often a collection of memories from a long life and former bigger apartments. The cool and distant post-modernist steel and glass box is transformed into a real home with the help of a spinning wheel from the childhood home and vintage furniture from all decades the inhabitant has lived through. But still, where are all the people who should be enjoying their balconies?
This is how the Longman Dictionary of contemporary English defines it:
strange /streɪndʒ/ adj
1. unusual or surprising, especially in a way that is difficult to explain or understand: a strange noise / Does Geoff’s behaviour seem strange to you? (…)There is something strange about that house.
2. someone or something that is strange is not familiar because you have not seen or met them before: all alone in a strange city.
Merriam-Webster adds to this:
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French estrange, from Latin extraneus, literally, external, from extra outside
1 a archaic: of, relating to or characteristic of another country: foreign 1 b: not native or naturally belonging in a place: of external origin, kind, or character
2a: not before known, heard or seen: unfamiliar 2b: exciting wonder or awe: extraordinary
3a: discouraging familiarities: reserved, distant 3b: ill at ease
4: unaccustomed: she was strange to his ways
I’m looking for the extraordinary, the unique and the exotic (which is nothing new for 21st century arts or architecture) but I will also try to look for the quaint, the peculiar and the eccentric. Because I think that the strangeness of the ordinary can reveal something important. The result might be an architectural freakshow or a guide to better homes.