Saturday, March 03, 2007

A (plastic) rectangular box

SIZE & SCALE on the Smithson’s House of the Future.

This paper intent to address one of the case studies of the PhD research; the Smithson’s House of the Future (or H.O.F. in their privates notes) and it relation with the issues of size & scale’s seminar. The provisional title of the research its “The transformation of the House through the development of the electromechanical appliance,” and focuses on to identify the modification of the House by the meaning and use of the domestic appliances from the post-war period onwards[1].

The House of the Future were a house projected by Alison and Peter Smithson between November 1955 and March 1956. They had been commissioned to design a standard suburban house how could possibly look like in the year of 1981, by the Daily Mail newspaper for the annual “Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition” held at Olympia Hall in west London on March 1956. A house for a future in 25 year, it was displayed there for 25 days.

The Smithson took the chance to explore the house as a domestic appliance to live in, rather than a suburban house as was posted by the exhibition’s theme. Within the house it was possible to found a series of state-of –the-art high tech domestic gadget such as an ‘electrostatic dust collector’ and a ‘tellaloud-speaking telephone’ but one interesting point of the project on relation with the Size & Scale seminar its on relation how to look into this house of the future

Beatriz Colomina in her Unbreathed Air 1956[2]s essay describes the house as:

A wooden rectangular box of almost blank walls. The words ‘House of the Future’ flashed on and off, projected onto one of the longer walls. A small opening to one end of the wall acted as an entrance. Inside was another blank box. Visitor would circle around it, peeping in at ground level through a few openings that had been opened in the walls for that purpose before ascending to an upper level, where a viewing platform circle the inner box again, allowing a bird’s eye view into its interior, before leaving the outer box through another discreet opening on one of the short sides and finally descending to the ground level of the vast Olympia exhibition hall in London.

The visitor of the house, unable to enter it, will peek inside through the viewing holes in the walls from the corridor surrounding the house at ground level or from the viewing platforms in the upper level where much of the roof had been removed to expose the interior. The visitor occupying the gap between the two containers had had a high controlled view of this possible future.

Thus, is it possible to ask about the Size & Scale on a house you are not allowed to go in? What is the size of a house you cannot experience but see?

Even those questions are eccentric to the main topic of the research, they are quite interesting to explore in a house that was considered as kind of supposition of the way to live in the near future. The House intent to address the issues of live mechanization or appliance-way-of living as the Smithson mentioned, and explores a sort of open and ambiguous form of relationship with their inhabitants.
The dream behind this house was a plastic version of the 1920s dream of the industrialised house. But this dream was no longer of a series of standard elements that can be combined in different ways to produce different house, rather, the dream was of a series of unique moulded shapes that can only be fit together in on form.[3]

The house was conceived by the Smithson as an ‘entire material unity’. The exhibition catalogue describes its structure as ‘moulded in plastic-impregnated plaster, a kind of skin structure built up in units comprising floor, walls, and ceiling as a continuous surface’[4]. The floor, wall and ceiling were considered as a single entity, even the lighting its integrated into this surface.

This ‘ambiguous arrange’ of architectural elements, and the way to look into the house, allow a possibility to ask; how you measure a house you cannot go in?

The model fact: size

This House was a model. A simulation, a full-scale mock-up in plywood, plaster, and traditional materials collaborating to produce an effect. It was not real but it was ‘make believe’ and everything there was made to create an effect of material continuity. Even the plastic walls that surrounded the garden were made of thin chromium wires tensioned between the ceiling and the floor. ‘They created the illusion of one curved transparent wall moulded on in metal-reinforced plastic described in the brochure of the house when in fact the opening was left unglazed’[5] as is described in the technical specification for the construction of the H.O.F.

Thus, it just can be analysing as a model, but at full size, a 1 to 1 scale. This 1 to 1 relation came from it comparison with another that made it possible to build and understand it. This ‘another’ is the body. Mark Cousins at certain moment along the seminar pointed that ‘the real object it is validated because of its size, the model is validated because is small’, thus, how we can consider a house that is at full size but it is a model as well? The answer to this it could be found on the way that the house displayed itself and built upon a relationship with the body’s viewer. The Smithson’s House of the Future remains a model because you cannot experience it directly. It is possible to see, from the sides and from above, but visitors cannot have a direct interaction within the house.

The only relation with the visitor body was their chance to peep around. It is a voyeuristic relationship with a model that was both a house on exhibit and an exhibitionist house, a peep show as stated in Colomina’s essay. This visual relationship establish that ‘the visitor occupying the gap between the two containers are carefully isolated from the rest of the Daily Mail exhibition, inside a case, but unable to walk into the house; they look inside it in complete absorption, as if watching a film, a TV programme, or a peep show’.[6] Their body cannot act as element of interaction but just their thoughts about what were they saw.

Throughout the seminar, as Marina Lathouri put it, some questions arise quite primarily. Is it size and scale a matter of perception? Is it size something relative?

As a provisional conclusion, the seminar’s group argue that size could be a perceptual fact. Following that argument, the act of perception could be an act of measure. If the act of perception it is an act of measure the element to do it is the body. In a model of a house that the only true relation was visual, it is possible to argue that the primary relation between the visitor body and the house was perceptual. Moreover, this house of windowless façade and forbidden access considered actors to ‘be see’ within it. Sometimes a couple or two enacting the domestic life of the future were not simply caught in the act of their life of the future but addressing the visitors to establish how could be the interaction between the body and the house’s futuristic form and artifacts. Here the act of measuring it is made by the visual fact rather the physical. The physical relation between body and object, that build a perceptual action, it is displaced to another. This action allows the viewer to scale the objects on the model and the model itself. Perhaps, without these simulated occupants, properly dressed on futuristic clothes, were more difficult to establish a sense of size in this model of a house where some objects barely resemble the shapes of the most common domestic apparatuses in use by 1956. Furthermore, maybe size is not entirely located in the object itself but a given by a sort of cultural agreement. It does not mean directly that size is subjective but it is establish by the relation between the object itself and the user/viewer.

The house’s size and its apparatuses could be constructed by a viewing understanding through the simulated occupant bodies, acting as images of the merely infinites possibilities of constructed relations within the house.

The viewing fact: scale

The images of the house were obtained through openings that had to be cut into the walls of the house to make its interior visible. The openings act like movie or TV screens set up for viewing the house. These holes were no windows as the Smithson insisted their entire life, and the partly removed ceiling allowed to the viewers to construct the mentioned relation between them –as body, and the house. Casual passers-by could not look at the inside of the house, when walking along the Ideal Home Exhibition hall. The house was enclosed in a box of blank walls, except for a horizontal slit at eye level running through the long facades that allowed to peeking inside only when very close to the wall, so it was a deliberated action to look into the house. There were no other external references to the internal world of the house. The way to look into it could define the house’s scale because the viewers peeking around the wall’s holes and looking through the inexistent ceiling can only build upon a relation of distance with the objects to be seen. This distance it is primordial to the idea of scale. Size could be a perceptual fact, but constructed through the body than can be change through different perceptions.

Scale it is a body translated to a mathematical system. It is an ideal body to be use to establish a relationship between objects and elements. A consensual body to operate within certain framework, as was the seminar’s provisional conclusion. In the House of the Future, that body is the house itself, because it suggests its own structure to be read through the distance of the peeping holes and the absent ceiling and its own enclosure guarantees both no possible relation with the other houses at Olympia Hall and it isolation. The general conception of the house was rooms that flow into one another like the compartment of a cave but each compartment were of different size. A different area an different high – a totally differentiate shape to suit its specific purpose.

Moreover, the evocative shape of the house, and its ambiguous forms it suggest a direct relation with an organism’s idealization. It resembles the body’s interior landscape or a highly refined image of sexual organs where the scale it given by their own relationship among themselves. The House of the Future although the references to an ideal body, it operating as a closed system of numerical relations. The house’s scale operates as functioning body rather than an image of it. A kind of prosthetic device of mechanical possibilities that establish its own scheme. An organ just

Alice and the H.O.F:

At certain point, the seminar explores Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with the aim to recognize how the changes of Alice’s body affect her understanding of the Wonderland surroundings. She is a device of multiple sizes and scales. She can fall down on a rabbit-hole without reducing herself and next time been enlarge by eating a mushroom or even almost been drown by her own tears. She resumes both conditions through the experience of a dislocated size and scale because it is her body – that grown smaller or larger- the device to measure Wonderland. Alice words ‘I must be shutting up like a telescope’ contain the asseveration of being the device, which look into the multiples scenarios of Wonderland.

Quoting Mark Cousins ‘if we accept that something of the body acts upon the experience of size, it is not other than a fantasy body, a body where different things and scales would happen at the same time’. Therefore, what is the body that operate at the House of the Future? Is it an ideal but from 1956’s body or a 1981’s body? This house operate with a sort of dislocated size because you can only experience through your eyes without the entire body, and a sort of dislocated scale because you can only operate within the auto-referenced system of shapes and forms and its relations with the simulated inhabitant’s bodies.

Further possibilities:

The main argument of the research it explores the modification of the house through the development and use of the domestic appliance. At this point, for the argument, the House of the Future, among others examples such the ‘Monsanto’s House of the Future’, or ‘Futuro’ the Finish example, it is a domestic application to live in rather than a suburban house. The possibility to look after the issues of size and scale are intimately related with the idea of domestic appliance. After the mechanization and it first encounter with the household, as is describes by Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization takes Command (1948), it has been a series of much technological-oriented proposals. Mostly with an engagement to the domestic appliance, that through time is been reduced and enlarged accordingly with technological development. It will be interesting to ask what kind of scale they have and how it can be measure on the house.

[1] In private household, technological advances did not become evident until the end of the nineteenth century, with the provision of electricity and the advent of electric appliances. See: GIEDION, Siegfried. Mechanization takes command, a contribution to anonymous history. Oxford University Press, New York, 1948.

[2] Colomina, Beatriz in: Van Heuvel; Risselada, Max. Alison and Peter Smithson –from the House of the Futuro to a house of today. 010 Publisher, Rotterdam, 2004. pp. 31-47.

[3] Alison Smithson describes the H.O.F. as a town house, it is not set in its own garden but contain a garden within. The House of the Future, Idela Home Exhibition, Olympia. Manuscript in A&P Smithson archives.

[4] Alison and Peter Smithson, “The House of the Future”, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, 1956, catalogue of exhibition, p.97.

[5] Smith, Trevor, exhibition architect, ‘Technical specification’ for the construction of the H.O.F., 11 November 1955. Manuscript in A&P Smithson Archives.

[6] Colomina, Beatriz. Op. Cit. p 41.

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