DWELLING AS MANIFESTO
During my time as a student, the houses that architects designed for themselves were presented as built manifestos about form or building technologies. Some of those houses, such as Melnikov’s in Moscow, were city residences, but the majority were vacation homes such as Aalto’s in Muuratsalo island, separate from the urban fabric to better display their uniqueness. Whenever plans were included in the publications, these betrayed a conventional, patriarchal domesticity reliant on housekeeping by the architect’s wife or by hired servants. No “room of one’s own” was provided for the women in the house other than the kitchen or perhaps like in Walter Gropius’ house in Lincoln MA, a sewing room, the counterpart to his study, a place for thinking .
Even when I was impressed by some of the technological experiments or formal innovations of these dwellings, I had no desire to emulate them. During the forty years I lived in Manhattan I moved eight times, my living quarters always within a short walking distance from my studio, starting in the 1970s when I found an apartment across the service entrance of the Museum of Modern Art on 54th street; my studio was two floors below. The city was my living room, and any one of the scores of small and inexpensive restaurants serving office workers that then filled the streets of my midtown neighborhood could become an extension of my dwelling, a place to meet friends and colleagues. A New York Times journalist, interviewing architects and seeking to promote appliance brands that would then pay for advertising, asked me what my favorite kitchen appliance was. When I told her it was the restaurant of the Dorset hotel across the street from my studio she laughed, but my answer was not included in her article.
My compromise then and now has been with the relationship between dwelling and city, especially the ways dwellings interact with urban resources to make a productive and satisfying life. I was living in the “15-minute city” decades before Ann Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, declared that as her goal for that metropolis. Everything I needed to meet daily needs I could reach on foot. When I moved I always made sure to be near a park, a museum, bookshops, art galleries and movie houses even when (or perhaps because) I was living on modest financial resources. This was the privilege of living in Manhattan during those years and this was the urban life I defended, against the more isolated suburban life for women, well before feminists and public transportation advocates begun promoting denser suburbs with mixed use zoning. My vision implied imbricating architecture and urban design, considered as distinct, separate disciplines in my academic contexts of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Concepts such as site, urban life and the ways that dwellings make the city were still in the margins of the dominant discourse of academic and trade publications. Even when I introduced these concepts early in my own teaching at Columbia University, it would take a long time for them to be accepted in accepted by mainstream academic discourse, even in its margins.
“Space as Matrix,” published in 1981 was my manifesto about dwellings and their context, and about life and architecture. It wasn’t until after more than three decades later that I was be able to realize those ideas in the design a dwelling for myself and my partner. Our dwelling, in a village in Spain, is not a self-standing object; it is a community of seven households, where the dwellings retain distinct identities within the community’s collective one. (See http://www.susanatorre.net/architecture-and-design/the-individual-and-the-collective/ ). Accomplishing this posed the challenge of developing a shared architectural language capable of variations for each home, instead of an exclusive and unique one for each dwelling. Each of the seven dwellings has its own set of characteristics, unlike an apartment building where a unity of expression imposed on the individual dwellings makes their differences disappear behind the anonymity of identical doors. I also attempted to formally express the possibility of change, although not always desirable; in our case by building in the spaces between dwellings.
The community was built on a plot overlooking the Mediterranean Sea that I purchased in 1971, with funds provided by my paternal grandmother so that I could “return to Spain for her.” But it disappeared under the first Coastal Line, a legal boundary between the sea and buildings on dry land. I had to wait thirty-five years until the line was moved to be able to build on the plot.
Our home is not a house, but a place made of multi-functional spaces waiting to be completed by the community, the village, and also the sky and the Mediterranean Sea. My intention was to make the architecture dissolve into the experience of living.
The Blue Room of our Dwelling
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