Kathryn O’Rourke

Kathryn O’Rourke is an architectural historian and professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She has written widely on the histories of architecture, landscape, and urbanism, and is the author of Modern Architecture in Mexico City: History, Representation, and the Shaping of a Capital and Home, Heat, Money, God: Texas and Modern Architecture (University of Texas Press), out next year. Her current book project, Archaism and Liberalism in Modern Architecture, examines the dynamics of form, estrangement, and liberalism in 20th-century architecture.

Untapped is published by the design company Henrybuilt.
Why Did Our Homes Stop Evolving?

Philosopher Emanuele Coccia maps out the need to consider new forms for domesticity.

Waist-up portrait of Emanuele Coccia standing off to the left side against a plain beige background
Emanuele Coccia. (Photo: Frank Perrin)

Emanuele Coccia is a philosopher, but he once wanted to be an architect. “I really think that architecture is a huge part of my thinking,” he recently explained via Zoom. “When I read [Rem Koolhaas’s] Delirious New York or [Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s] Learning from Las Vegas for the first time, I remember thinking, Wow. How could a person be so smart?”

Perhaps best known for his thinking on more-than-human species and anthropocentrism in 2016’s The Life of Plants, Coccia’s work has often interrogated the materiality of the contemporary world, with other volumes touching on on tactility, aesthetics, urban space, and even weather, among other topics. Yet his latest book is the most direct return to that earlier fascination with the built environment: Philosophy of the Home (Penguin Books), released in the United Kingdom last week, is an extended essay of meditations and provocations on that most familiar of subjects: the domestic.

Unfolding across a dozen chapters and covering topics such as moving house, love, fear, wardrobes, and—one highlight—bathrooms, Coccia’s book is approachable and relatively lightweight in tone and length. So much so that, in its early pages, one wonders what new insights might be possible on such a well-worn subject.

To the contrary, one of the central theses of the book is that not enough serious consideration has been afforded to the home throughout the history of philosophy and that this omission has serious consequences, both emotional and architectural. In the book’s introduction, Coccia argues that the city—historically the predominant site of technological innovation, paid labor, and mass political upheaval—has received the lion’s share of intellectual attention “from Plato to Hobbes” and “Rousseau to Rawls,” while the home has been overlooked.

For Coccia, this imbalance is reflected in the differing histories of urban design and domestic design. He writes that cities have become extraordinarily complex and are almost unrecognizable from those of previous centuries, while “the thought given to the home […] is so crude and prehistoric that it still allows the vast majority of architects to believe that the problem posed by each house is one of the spatial composition of a few rectangles that have each been given some vital purpose.” To put it another way, the architecture of the homes we live in today does not reflect the centuries of social, moral, and technological changes that have occurred since the earliest human dwellings were constructed. Bedrooms are still bedrooms; bathrooms are still bathrooms.

So while this is a work of philosophy, a treatise on ideas and emotions, the book does deal with these issues in spatial terms. At times it does so by calling out the architectural profession. Elsewhere, it at least provokes some radical design thinking by deconstructing some of the assumptions built into the fabric of our everyday lives, posing questions such as: Why do we eat communally but shit in private? What would happen if we changed the layout of our homes as often as we changed clothes? What new socialities would have emerged if the pandemic had forced us from our homes, not just our cities? Do smartphones constitute a new form of domesticity?

More than just provocation, however, the book is personal and reflective, and comes at a moment when the need to consider new forms for domesticity is as pressing as ever. The makeup of communities and the nature of work have both been transformed by digital technologies in the past decade; the nuclear, heteronormative family continues to be destabilized as the basic social unit, and the climate emergency forces new conceptions of conviviality among species and new understandings of landscapes and structures for liveability.

To dig into all this, I spoke with Coccia ahead of the release of his book to understand more about why we need to rethink the home, the domesticity of WhatsApp, and what the TV show Friends tells us about the history and future of living together.

Considering some of the other topics you’ve written on, I wanted to begin by asking why you’ve written this book on the home and, more specifically, why this book now? Is there something about the home right now that you think needs addressing?

There are a couple of biographical reasons. One of them is the fact that I wanted to be an architect when I was young, but I renounced the career because I couldn’t draw.

There is also another reason which is, as I mention in the first chapter, that I have moved about thirty or forty times in my life, and I never understood why it was so easy for me to move. I feel comfortable in every kind of apartment I arrive in, or even in hotels where I stay. It’s no problem for me to move at all. It’s as if I’m not really attached to a special place, and the book was, in a way, an attempt to produce a sort of therapy. Of course, it didn’t work, but these are the biographical reasons.

Then there’s something deeper, which is that I really think we have to rethink domestic space for at least three reasons.

First of all, our lives have changed a lot in terms of customs, habits, ways of being. Marriage has a totally different structure, families have changed, but we still design homes as if we exist in the seventeenth century. There is a gap between the moral progress of humanity and the imagination of our domestic spaces. We have to rethink what it means to live together from the scale of domestic association.

Then there is a second reason, which is what happened in the pandemic around work. Modernity was born through the act of taking work—the activity of producing wealth—out of the home. But now we are witnessing the reverse process. Work is coming back home, and this is also changing the structure of cities.

And then there is the third reason, which is what’s happening through the digital revolution. The smartphone in itself, or the personal computer, is an object which has to be thought of as a domestic space. It’s really an extension of a home. Which means that our domestic space has enlarged and it’s made no more out of space and bricks. WhatsApp is, for me, a sort of living room which transforms my home into something that has nothing to do with space or geography.

From this point of view, the technology we are now producing has transformed the home into a space that is following you. I can meet people by bypassing the city, which is huge. Before, the city was the space; now I do not need the city anymore. Through WhatsApp or Instagram, we are building a network which is a social network, but no [longer] an urban one. What does it mean to produce sociality without cities?

In the introduction to the book you lay out this idea that the city has been the site of the history of philosophy, or that the history of philosophy has been very urban, and has overlooked the home. Can you explain that history and why it’s important to the book’s thesis?

The history of philosophy, or thinking, has always been linked to the city because the city was the space of innovation, the production of knowledge and innovation in terms of progress. For example, the sexual revolution was a city revolution. In European cultural history, we are told there was a fight between Athens and Jerusalem, Rome and Paris. So there is this focus on cities, which is normal because cities were the space of power.

Cities are also the most impressive artifacts that humans have built. [Thomas] Hobbes suggested, at some point, that the city is the biggest object that human beings can build, the biggest artwork.

And then also there is a gender bias in the sense that philosophy was, for centuries, a male activity through which men could see themselves as bodies and souls who were acting in the city, and not at home.

So that’s one other reason why we have to come back home. Homes were [once] instruments of gender violence, or gender domination, and produced inequality. The fact that domestic space was neglected is one of the first causes of the production of violence, domination, and inequality.

At a few points in the book, you make some provocations, or speculations, around the future of living—such as the idea that we might change our homes in the same way we change our clothes. You also question the rigidity we hold around the functions of certain rooms in the house. Is this your latent architect coming out, or are you trying to speak to reading designers? What are you hoping to do with these remarks?

Perhaps this is this killed architect in me who is trying to resurrect himself.

One big problem I have is that technology has evolved in almost every field in a very specific sense. Technology has evolved to give the user a huge amount of space and responsibility and agency. But this is not possible in the case of homes. We’re still building homes in a very primitive way. We’re thinking about how to build a car without having to drive it. Why the fuck is nobody thinking about houses, where the walls [could] move by just pressing a button? It’s not so difficult; we have the technology. There is this idea that houses should be solid, and should not be objects that can be shaped by their users.

So perhaps these kinds of provocations are a way to say how the home should be much more plastic, much more metamorphic. They could be as versatile as smartphones. Perhaps we should start to think about the home as something which can be changed very easily. Not in the sense that we are abandoning one space, but that we can change or redraw it. Redesign it.

You talk often about smartphones—or “psychomorphic machines,” as you describe them in a book—as new forms of home. Do you think we’ve freed ourselves from the need for a single space to call home? Or do you think we’re more in need of a domestic core than ever?

I would say neither. We are neither liberated nor in need of a return to a more private space. I just think that the social space has changed in matter and consistency, but we still have the same kind of necessity.

The idea of the private home has a very long history, a very specific history, even from an architectural point of view. The origin of the private home is the monastic cell. There is very interesting work that [the architects at] Dogma are doing, about the long history of the private home—I didn’t touch on that in the book because their work is so good [that it speaks for itself].

But this is just to say that the desire for isolation, and isolation in sharing a space in life, is not modern at all. It’s something invented in the Middle Ages. And we still have a double expectation, to have space for us and then to be able to easily come into communication with other people. We need both isolation and sociality.

What changes is the way we get that. For a long time, domestic space was linked to family in a very traditional sense. What has changed forever is the idea that houses and homes are for the traditional ideal of family—a mother, father, and child. This is over. We should think about what it means to have a home where you’re living with people, but not in order to have children.

The TV show Friends was so successful exactly because of that. It was the embodiment of the idea of a family which is beyond sex, because even the couple is just a variation of those friends. Crucially, the home was there. So what does it mean to imagine a cohabitation of people who are sharing something that is even deeper than sex, and where sex is an ephemeral geometry of this group? From this point of view, this TV show is incredible, because it was a depiction of a moral setting that has become our lives today.

I want to go further into this idea of isolation and separation, between the domestic interior and the outside world. In the book you describe these as being necessarily or inherently separate. In a way, the very definition of the home becomes that separation.

In my work as a curator, I’m often looking at climate issues and feel that my role is to highlight the continuous relationship between our domestic lives and broader ecological issues. Why do you think the home must be discontinuous from an “outside?”

The very idea of a home is that you are in front of the world. You are saying there are some elements of this world—things like persons, objects, experiences, animals, plants—that you need to be close to you, or that you need to come back to every single night in order to feel that the planet has space for you. To see the planet as the form of your own happiness. Or, to put it another way, that your happiness is not just a feeling, but something which is inscribed in the matter of the planet.

In a way, a home is always a selection of the world. And that’s why there is a separation. Not because there is an isolation, but an election, almost in a religious use of the word. You elected, or you chose, some elements that embody the material form of your happiness.

Incidentally, because I have a van, I have a sort of side hustle where I help friends move house. So I’ve been witness to the process of moving many times. One thing I’ve observed in doing that is that it’s not really a moment about houses or buildings or spaces. It’s really the objects that are moving, that our emotional lives are tangled up in. You write about that in the book, which made me wonder: Do you think the home is the stuff that we move with us and that we allow ourselves to reflect our own emotional lives in? Or is there more to it than that?

First, in moving, you see how wrong Philip Johnson was. Architecture is not about space—not at all—because homes or houses are not spaces but a collection of objects whose aura or power produce space.

So from this point of view, space is an accident of the persons or objects we live with. Objects are not just objects. They are pieces of souls. They are animated stuff. They are life which takes form.

But they are also the shortening of an experience, the shortening of a gesture or a time, a condensation of experience. That’s why we have to start from objects: because we have to start from our experience.

I once translated a book by an amazing anthropologist called Daniel Miller. He was one of the founders of material anthropology, twenty or thirty years ago. He wrote a book called The Comfort of Things, in which he looked at thirty apartments in London and described them and the portative cosmology that those apartments were embodying, starting from the objects a person was deciding to collect.

And it’s true. You enter into a house and, much more than the design of the spaces, when you're looking to the objects, you see a lot. I can see some of your objects behind you and I can already say a lot about you.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.