Researcher Builds Machine that Daydreams…

This is what I recently wrote to a distant friend who asked me about ways to deal with the question of housing in face of the changes looming ahead. I’m posting this here because it highlights the points at which the entire exercise of design as a way to envision and plan for human needs is held in a vice by our present conditions. Something has to change before we can do anything but try to muddle through.

In the meantime, as the title announces, someone is busy inventing a machine that can dream….

Housing is a big problem. I’ve spent a long time thinking about houses – I won’t use the term architecture, a dirty word in my book! As a kid I had a vision that the best way to house humanity would be to build underground with openings out onto cliff faces for access and light. This way the surface of the earth could be left to the “natural” world. I was re-inventing the cave, I guess. There is something to that. All housing is trying to reinvent the cave, or the tree-house.

The biggest problem with housing now, especially in the US is that we’ve taken all that oil and all those trees and made shit out of them. Especially housing built in the last fifty years, on an exponential scale of shittiness as time has gone on. When house building became the “Housing Industry” another craft fell into the well. Today’s houses aren’t real, they are no more real than the “value” of the home equity loans that were taken out on them to buy more shit at Walmart.

This sounds like a rant, but it isn’t, it’s just the plain truth. The point is how do we get past that? There’s the really big problem.

Your idea of retreating to a core within a large house might work in structures made of lasting materials without the need for exterior maintenance. The problem with a wood frame house is that the roof and walls, even the reinforced concrete of a modern foundation, are not lasting materials. A large house has a large surface area – in actual, not relative terms, but that’s what needs to be maintained. Any core you might retreat to would be structurally compromised by damage to the rest of the structure. In a stone house in a dry warm climate it’s feasible, that’s what has happened in periods of contraction all around the Mediterranean world for millennia. I don’t see how it can be made to work for more than ten years or so in our current housing in our damp climates in the east of the US. I’m sure Tennessee has seen as many old farmhouses and small town 19the Century houses and shops melt away after having “storm windows” and vinyl siding put on, then to have them sag away into heaps as the impoverished residents hauled in double wides to park in the driveways, then to see even these “structures” deteriorate leaving piles of old tires and blown out insulation among the weeds. Living in New York State through the eighties and nineties, I saw a lot of that. At the time I thought New York State was “backward.” Now I see that they were simply ahead of their times.

Housing, like food has suffered from the Big Lie, that they can be cheap. That led to double-wides and McMansions right alongside the microwave taco and the Whopper. It will be just as hard to come out of that fantasy with housing as it is with food. Adjusting to growing what we need, or finding it locally and paying what it’s worth to have it is daunting. On top of that we have to add this question of housing.

Plenty of cultures have found ways to meet both of these needs, at least for some, at least for a while. We haven’t done it for anyone in this country for a long time. Buying into substituting a life filled with crap, fed on crap, living in crap doesn’t prepare us well.

Instead of a “Space Program” focused on fantasies of escape and conquest, we could devote some of the remaining oil and material “wealth” available to doing something about it. The problem there is that the people holding the power don’t believe there’s anything wrong that more of the same won’t cure. That’s where the struggle seems to be most pointed. In the meantime, we continue to build shitty houses and plan the futures of communities around highways and the need for cheap electricity.

You know all this, I know. It’s just that we all need to see how it impinges on us directly at every turn. Not to be made “pessimistic,” but so we don’t end up feeling frustrated at what is a Herculean task or being deflected at attaching the blame where it belongs. Remember, when someone in power calls you a consumer and vows to help you, they are a predator eyeing you as their next meal.

Orlov talks about the advantages the survivors of the former soviet union had over us. They had a long history of knowing they were oppressed and of making due without getting overly caught up in blaming themselves. They were acclimated to just getting by and saw no shame in it. They had even built up to some extent, under the waving banners of “solidarity,” to have come up with ways to share their burdens with their neighbors, at least until the freshly released oligarchy flooded them with our style of something for nothing.

I don’t know how we’ll compensate for the lack of that kind of history. Or even Britain, with the blitz and war-time shortages still at the edge of living memory. Or,Cuba, a living laboratory for post oil living that today seems to be on the verge of giving it all up for one last chance to return to its Casino past.

There are things that can be done to make a house cost less to heat and cool and to last longer than what we have now. The problem then becomes one of security. Not the obvious “zombies breaking down the doors at night” security, but the even more likely event of “eminent domain:” the risk that any pocket or haven anywhere on this earth that manages to escape having been conquered, or that has worked its way out of the grasp of power, can at the whim of authority be taken over or destroyed.

Food, housing, security, these aren’t “Third World” problems. These are our problems as well. The most important step in adjusting to the slide away from living off the labor of slaves in a barrel is realizing that we all share the same problems, the same predicaments, and the same oppressors.

Nobody said any of this was gonna be easy!


3 Replies to “Researcher Builds Machine that Daydreams…”

  1. Within this discussion you have touched on one of the hardest aspects of this problem, unrealistic expectations. I suspect that I have probably told you this story at some point, but back in the 1970’s when I was working on my thesis for my architectural graduate degree, (Which by the way was a thesis called, “Designing for Longevity”,that attempted to wrestle with the balance between purely durable vs. easily maintainable. But that is another story). I came across several tidbits in my research.

    The first was a US government statistic which suggested that more housing had been built in a period of 25 years after WWII (if I remember correctly) than had been built in all of (U.S.) history prior. The second was in a completely unassoicated Rand research document which suggested that the average economically viable lifespan of houses built after WWII was something like 30-35 years. At the time, I found both tidbits lacking in plausibility and quite disturbing.

    In the intervening years, I have watched as the expectations of the average family have grown to the point that these post war homes became emotionally inadequate and therefore seemingly economically obsolete.

    After the war, a family of 4 might live happily in a very simple home of 1300-1400 square feet. But over the years, the expectations of grander ‘great rooms’ and master bedroom/bath suites, bigger closets, modern appliances, central air conditioning, which then required better insulation and greater electrical capacity, and so on, have caused these once adequate homes to become viewed as unacceptable without huge ‘upgrade’ investments, investments that could total more than simply building a new home from scratch.

    Today’s expectations about the average family’s home is closer to 3,000 square feet, and includes features that were not even conceiveable when I was in school.

    And the older homes were constructed using higher maintenance but maintainable materials and methods, rather than lower initial maintenance but disposable materials so popular today.

    It would be very easy to make the rational case for smaller, more energy efficient, better constructed, more functionally designed, more easily maintainable, less disposable and sustainable homes. But I suspect that the true hurdle to this shift would be getting past the perception and expectations of the current culture.


    1. Jeff,

      Precisely! That is why I see this as a cultural problem not one that can be solved by us as “designers.”

      As conditions deteriorate there may be a moment when there’s a rise in will, or foresight, to accomplish something that might help soften the blow, but as Dylan said, “There’s a Hard Rain Gonna Fall!” And so far, the attention is still caught up in “holding on” to chimerical advantages.

      It’s hard enough saying these things here in the quiet of my room, clacking away onto a screen. We need to find ways to exert a force on those around us to make it possible for people to see that business as usual is a trap and that beginning to look into how and why, and finding ways to get on with things anyway, is better than this perpetual state of frozen anticipation, knowing full well it will all end up badly while fantasizing about dreaming machines and living on Mars.

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