Under the new normal of COVID-19, every relevant subject in humanity needs an updated look. This subject adjustment should either cope or subvert from its previous definitions to be molded into an on-going concept. It is where the house comes in. The pandemic shows how urgent it is to provide adequate housing, especially for low-income people. For instance, in Brazil, 8 million people currently do not have access to adequate housing and more than 7 million don’t even have one.
Perhaps one of the most fruitful subjects in architecture, the space of our home, appears as the central theme that we cannot run away. Beyond shelter, it became the very own definition of plurality. Social distancing demanded all of us to look inside. While houses convert in offices, restaurants, playgrounds, movies, or habitat, isolation reveals the possibility of genuinely discovering the space we live. Without being susceptible by what contemporary society advertises to be the imperative in matters of living, residents are now the anthropologists of their domestic existence. It is a pivotal moment of inner and outer change, that will shape us and the ways that we interpret domesticity. It will uncover what is essential for habitat in the 21st century, in the words and transformations of inhabitants.
Through the analytical lens of architecture, every subject needs its definition. From Laugier’s “Primitive Hut” (1753) to Corbusier’s “Machine for living in” (1914), the house experienced the transition from shelter to a functional organism. It was a departure from refuge to developing a space where organized rooms neatly met every need. Function drove the design of houses, and definitions of habitat as such disseminated along with young architects and users like a prescription. Still, every human needs a haven, and as necessity fosters invention, or in this case, re-invention, informality showed us the way back to the essential. Favelas emerged in Latin America, exposing real needs assembled in elemental houses, built by the users. There was a transition again; housing now was a verb, active, unpredictable, messy, and still, architecture. It was architecture by “common” people. People indeed, but rather than ordinary, empowered. Fueled by their critical definition of basic needs, they uncovered a new layer of domesticity and citizenship through their self-built home.
The evolution of the house space presents an opportunity for redefining the roles of architects and inhabitants. There lies both a necessity and a provocation: are architects prepared for their new purpose regarding housing? My answer is: we better be. It is about time that we recognize that living goes beyond programming and that although we know, only the users will understand and decide how they will live in their space. Let’s lift the veil of control and embrace our new roles: architects as enablers and residents as contributors to their houses. Let’s look at the forces behind informality, understanding the needs of tomorrow from the people that have less today. Let’s promote an anarchist idea for housing, where its design is a result of collaboration.
For architects, it is time to start making architecture by four, ten, twenty hands, realizing the incredible power of participatory design. For users, it is time to reflect on essential attributes of living under the lens of isolation. For both, soon, it will be time to join forces. It will be upon all of us to shape the houses of the future. However, instead of spacecraft doppelgangers with the justification of virus protection and social distancing, let’s use our time in ensuring the homes of tomorrow will embody the basic objective of providing citizenship through shelter.
College Station, June 2, 2020