Smart Things for an Ironic Future

This thesis is concerned with a complex and essential tension that I perceive in our relationship with technology, which I associate with the images of the cyborg and the hermit, the cyborg being the manifestation of the will-to-technology and the hermit being the manifestation of the impulse to reject technology.

The capacity to make and use technology is a crucial attribute of humanity. We are tool users. Furthermore, technology seems to develop following clear but largely unarticulated lines of desire. But yet we are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by our technology. We are both hopeful that our technology will liberate us and fearful that it will contain us. We both love the power that it affords and anxious about the fragility of our waxen wings.

This drama is played out at the scale of the dwelling unit, posed here as a basic frame for our existential condition. There is a reciprocal quality to the dwelling unit: we give it form and it forms us, and thus the connection between it and us is strong. The dwelling unit frames our dwelling; we exist in it, with it, and through it; we see the world through it. We remember, imagine, and project the world from it.

In this sense, we have always been sort of architectural cyborgs, indeed, we have always had a close connection with all of our tools. But yet there is something totally repulsive about the very closeness of this connection. There is something unreal about it, something that makes us want to run into the woods and return to the land in a desperate bid for authenticity. Heidegger, Jung, and Al Purdy all give strong evidence of this tendency, and likewise in all three we see fascinating examples of architecture’s potential for engagement with our self-creation. Their houses were intense sites of dwelling and sense-making, both of the world and of the self.

Strong nationalistic tendencies in both Purdy and Heidegger must make us sceptical of their projects, however. And Jung’s stripped-down, stable model of the (fully individuated) self is outmoded. The true nature of nostalgia, sentiment for the land, and longing for unity, both in their very positive and understandable aspects and in their potential for violence and exclusion must be addressed.

This thesis then tentatively attempts to work with the changes in contemporary technology and the attendant changes in us. And a number of important changes are taking place: the extent that we are becoming embroiled in large, unfathomable networks is causing disindividuation and re-mystification such that technology assumes a mystical, almost semi-divine aura; the merger of physical reality with virtual reality (the emergence of mixed reality) together with transcendence of the purely visual interface are causing a more harmonious relationship to develop between mind & body; the split self, or ecological model of self is supported by technologies that structurally divide attention, opening the potential for ironic attitudes towards truth, and more pervasive acceptance of plurality and multiplicity.

Traditional boundaries are blurring between mind and body, self and other, humanity and nature, between classes, ethnicities, genders (Haraway). These boundaries are becoming negotiable zones. How can architecture navigate these boundary zones? How can we design meaningful architecture for our new hybrid condition? How can our architecture accommodate both inner peace and inner multiplicity, the possibility of rootedness without the solace of race, religion or nationhood?

The architecture of our dwelling unit represents a threshold between the ecosystem that we are, of beliefs, thoughts, desires, body, and machines, and the larger ecosystems, both of earth and world of which we are a part. It is a tool through which we confront our cosmos (Bachelard). The careful calibration of this tool is a matter of responsibility. We must also carefully calibrate architecture to the scale of our ‘technological flesh’ (Perez-Gomez), to craft a sensual engagement between us and larger-scaled systems as a potential antidote to the alienation exacerbated by digital technology. If our architecture implies a ‘way of living’, let that way of living be tolerant and liberal, and open to plurality.

This thesis follows from the identification of primal ‘value’ in the mundane elements of the house demonstrated in Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and also Pallasmaa’s brief article “Identity, Intimacy, and Domicile”. It tracks the tendencies of the cyborg and of the hermit through these elements, focusing on: the chair, the bed, the water closet, the window, the stair, the dining table and the hearth. In treating these elements, the thesis presents historical accounts and poetical descriptions as well as gestures of design in the hopes of bringing about both a more intimate knowledge of these foci as well as speculating about a position in the tension between the cyborg and the hermit.

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