Invading Spaces

The intruder in private space
The work of art is the private affair of the artist. The house is not...The work of art is answerable to no one; the house, to everyone. The work of art wants to shake people out of their complacency. The house must serve comfort. The artwork is revolutionary, the house conservative.1
— Adolf Loos, “Architecture”, 1909

A woman stares directly at you, her fingers cradling the outline of a hollow cheek; her eyes pose an unmodulated challenge rendered in opaque black, while teenagers do nothing in particular on a street corner behind her. Stepping back, you find yourself in a carefully appointed bedroom, the mid-century architecture furnished with contemporary objects. The aforementioned street scene, starring Patti Smith, is actually a larger-than-life, black-and-white photocopy from a punk magazine, the text sliced haphazardly off at the edges, hung from ceiling to floor on an unadorned white wall in a preserved apartment in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles.2

To encounter this arresting image within an oasis of 1950s standardized domestic comfort is already, to an unsuspecting contemporary viewer, quite shocking. Today, when the most intimate of spaces are carefully staged, documented and broadcast for an eagerly consuming global audience, the home still retains something of a sacred nature. It is our retreat from the ravages of public life, which deny us not only our repose but also our very individuality. In 2013, Patti is the intruder in our sanctuary, even before we meet her uncompromising gaze. Imagine, then, what this image would have meant for the designer of this cellular edifice more than sixty years ago. When Le Corbusier published La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City) in 1933, his answer to the question of living was a “vessel to hold each family, absolutely separate from other vessels containing other families”.3 An accompanying sketch demonstrates the intensity of this belief: a single apartment is suspended in mid-air, fed with air, gas and electricity through intravenous pipes from distant utilities. The only interaction, in fact, between the lone human and his environment is the visual panorama of a tree-planted landscape through his apartment window, represented in the drawing by a gigantic eye.

It is tempting to castigate this design as the prototype for a neo-liberal, even anti- social divide between public and private, one that treats both the social community and the natural environment as mere background noise to an exquisitely designed bubble of personal property. There are, however, several factors complicating this viewpoint. The public environment of mid-century France was hardly the welcoming territory of clean air and freedom that we would like to imagine. By that time, the engines of industry that awoke in Europe in the nineteenth century had raised air pollution to terrifying levels: in December of 1952, thousands of people died of respiratory diseases during the Great Smog in London. The desire to isolate oneself physically from the contaminated outer world was made evident in a 1959 Pathé newsreel showing a girl strolling around Soho, with a bubble encapsulating her head – as the narrator says, “wearing the latest from Paris, a smog mask”.4

For all the attention given to the building’s exterior, it is significant to note how much planning Le Corbusier devoted to the interior life of the apartments: each one would have “a four-plate electric range with oven, a double sink with automatic garbage disposal, refrigerator and working table”, central air conditioning, and “sound insulation [consisting] of lead sheets put in between the separating walls of the apartments”.5 Le Corbusier’s fixation with soundproofing, dating back to La Ville Radieuse, may seem curious until we consider that sound, manifested through radio, was the predominant medium of mass communication at the time; television was still a novelty, experienced mostly in public space.6 Beyond providing each family with all of the amenities they could possibly want within the boundaries of their own apartment, Le Corbusier may have felt he was defending the sanctity of the home by sheathing it with lead, sound being the only virtual channel known to transcend the barrier of the front door. Now that this medium has been successively augmented by image, video and personal data, we can only imagine how the architect would have responded to the challenge of keeping the membrane of privacy intact.

If Grcic’s intervention in apartment No. 50 points to the inevitable fallibility of such attempts—from the infection of the private by mass media, even the alternative culture of punk magazines, to the democratization of technology—one of his early works demonstrates a high sensitivity to the private sphere and to its trespass by the intruder. In collaboration with his sister, the artist Tamara Grcic, the designer upended the traditional notion of the frame as a declaration: “This is art, put on display for your personal aesthetic enjoyment.” Instead, he hooked a metal plate in front of the photograph, forcing the viewer to peek into the gap in order to see the artwork.18 In an era when we unthinkingly absorb thousands of pictures per day, the consumption of the image is becoming less and less of a transgression into another person’s privacy; nevertheless, this anti-frame arrangement is highly rhetorical. The contemporary terms of networked community engineer a great degree of public involvement both into and out of our private sanctuary. Yet when we participate in this manner, it is not our person but our documentation (whether image, text or sound) that is confronted by a mass audience. In other words, the wilful intruder becomes the passive consumer. On second thoughts, there is little difference; as Roland Barthes put it, “‘private life’ is nothing but that zone of space, of time, where I am not an image, an object. It is my political right to be a subject which I must protect.”7 Grcic’s opaque metal veils show that this breach is made no less significant for how frequently it is committed; at the same time, his punk blow-ups challenge the idea that we are ever truly ensconced within our own private space.

According to Boris Groys, “the ultimate problem of design concerns not how I design the world outside, but how I design myself—or rather, how I deal with the way in which the world designs me...self-design is a practice that unites artist and audience alike in the most radical way: though not everyone produces artworks, everyone is an artwork.”8 Invariably, the solution lies not in adapting the physical barrier between subjects but the mental filters through which they regard one another. And if even this proves impossible against the societal pressure to know and be known, perhaps the space of retreat must depart from the domestic sphere. In Mark Dion’s Society of Amateur Ornithologists, made on the occasion of Emscherkunst 2010, the artist created a bird observatory (styled in a semi-fictional nostalgia with Persian rugs, custom-built shelving and overstuffed couches) within an abandoned gas tank he discovered in the Ruhr Valley. Dion suggests that our desire for silence and quiet, respectful observation may take refuge in the ruins of the industrial capitalism that caused their extinction.

The space of an individual (living or otherwise)
The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. The fight with nature which primitive man has to wage for his bodily existence attains in this modern form its latest transformation.9
— Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, 1903

Assuming that private space, the space of one human body, is something that can be demarcated from the public, how can its contours be drawn? This question has served as inspiration for many designers over the past century, since the apparatus of mass production made it possible to rethink our living spaces from scratch, at the same time as war and economic crises demanded the utmost of efficiency from standardized architectural solutions. In this context, Existenzminimum10 was traced on a tabula rasa: how smoothly the intended harmonics of the Modulor (intended, at least, for tall, able-bodied men) gave way to the reductive ergonomics of Neufert. Even in the present, as the physical body is more often than not superseded by the digital avatar, the question has lost none of its significance: digital designers carry the thread of their predecessors in creating the ideal format for an individual unit of content—140 characters, a square photo 612 pixels per side, 6 seconds of film. The outlines of the online persona, it would seem, can be just as fixed as those of the physical body in its Frankfurt kitchen.

In the hands of artists, meanwhile, the question of body space has remained much more open-ended. The work of Rebecca Horn traces the points of contact between the body and its environment through prostheses, extensions, and sensory filters such as feathers and bandages; in Abyss Mask (1967), Lygia Clark visualized a rather different form in space by enclosing the volume of her breath in a net-wrapped balloon. Perhaps the most pared-down interpretation of body space, however, can be found in the work of Lawrence Malstaf: in Shrink (1995), he literally vacuum-seals the human figure in plastic, leaving a thin air tube to allow breathing and movement. Suspended in air, free to ignore the limitations of gravity, this is the body in its purest form of isolation. These projects hone one of art’s primary facets, a negotiation of the borders between the human body and its surroundings (and no less in the digital realm than in the analogue).

Back on the ground, however, the individual must contend with a real context and the things within it. In 2001, invited to make an installation in Eigelstein 115, a narrow building inserted into a gap in Cologne’s urban fabric, Grcic presented an unusual design—an inflatable balloon 2.47 metres wide, exactly the breadth of the hall. Here, personal space could be measured as the void between the immovable wall and the squishy balloon, as the human figure manoeuvred the gap. Puffball points out that human space is a consequence of urbanism, architecture and objects. What is more, the inanimate object seems to be asserting its own right to exist alongside its living colleagues, as Bruno Latour has claimed in the actor-network theory.11

Yvonne Dröge Wendel’s Black Ball pushes that very possibility to extraordinary limits. This ball is even larger, at 3.5 metres in diameter, and it has been unleashed from the interior to roam various cities, from Newcastle to Istanbul. Dröge Wendel intentionally made the work as abstract as possible, thus forcing its audience to construct meaning through their interaction with the physical object. Like the traveller, Black Ball finds some urban spaces easier to navigate than others, and it must rely on the help of the natives to overcome obstacles. It even depends on the generosity of hosts around the world to shelter it for the night in their homes. Seen from the perspective of personal space, BlackBall demonstrates that the concept has no universal solution; in each unique circumstance, it must be negotiated through a combination of specific social interactions and technological mediations, whether the protagonist is a human or an object.

Witness, for example, the Hotel Experimenta designed by Jan Konings for the eponymous design biennial. Konings had the idea to build a hut entirely out of foam, so that it could be easily transported from place to place. A simple box on stilts containing a double bed, the design is absurdly simple (in collaboration with the foam manufacturer, it took about fteen minutes to work out—a fact that is made only slightly less impressive by Le Corbusier’s claim to have designed his own temple of solitary living, Le Cabanon, in half an hour). Much more complex, however, is the hotel’s network of distributed resources, all arranged through mutual agreement with neighbours and local businesses in order to provide the hotel guest with a place to shower, do laundry, borrow books and eat breakfast. On one hand, Hotel Experimenta does appear to reduce personal space to a minimum. On the other hand, that minimum is only made possible by extending the functional relationships of this cell to encompass the entire city of Amsterdam—a feat achieved through a large investment in social and information design. Even the dimensions of the hotel room are an outcome of product design (the size of a bed) rather than a direct response to the human body. In fact, that aforementioned human being may exert the most negligible influence of all in the resolution of the boundary between private and public.

In one of his installations Grcic takes this startling possibility to its logical extreme. Industrial Design Parade (2006) is a catwalk of domestic objects—chairs, tables, shelves and containers—whose phalanx of spotlights, reflectors and rigs makes barely any room for the human body. Indeed, by our very desire to fill our domestic spaces with these sources of ease, comfort and good taste, we may be engineering ourselves out of the equation entirely. By using these objects to achieve the trappings of domestic comfort, we risk barricading ourselves in, as Montresor does to the inopportunely named Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”. Industrial Design Parade reminds us what may happen when we treat these objects as fortifications rather than fertile links in the chains of human interaction.

Bridges, barriers and connective infrastructures
Each object gathers around itself a different assembly of relevant parties. Each object triggers new occasions to passionately differ and dispute. Each object may also offer new ways of achieving closure without having to agree on much else. In other words, objects—taken as so many issues—bind all of us in ways that map out a public space profoundly different from what is usually recognized under the label of “the political”.12
— Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public”, 2005

Every few years, in autumn or winter, the tides in the Venice Lagoon reach unusual heights, intensified by the sirocco and bora winds in a weather pattern known as acqua alta. Water flows into the city,  flooding the Piazza San Marco and other low-lying topographic zones. In response, the municipality installs a system of passerelle, or elevated gangways, throughout the city, allowing pedestrians to navigate 1.2 metres above street level. By appropriating the passerelle as an exhibition installation at the 2012 Venice Biennale, Grcic inverted the formula of Industrial Design Parade. Here, the visitor could stroll along the elevated catwalk, enjoying a higher vantage point on to the enormous architectural photographs on display. Transported into the rarefied interior of the German Pavilion, these simple wood and steel constructions reveal their nature as the connective tissue between humans, architecture and nature, allowing the Venetians and tourists to go about their business amidst substantial environmental flux.

As essential as objects may be to the construction of private space, they are perhaps even more of a prerequisite in the regulation of public space. Whereas private space is increasingly dedicated to monastic introspection, public space continues to absorb an ever-widening range of functions and activities (including those that were traditionally walled off from outsiders), and thus its physical mechanisms grow ever more diverse. This is not to say, however, that the public sphere is becoming more egalitarian. On the contrary, the vast territory of the public is subject to countless intersecting spheres of influence, from commercial interests and production chains to military infrastructures and networks of data collection. While they have always been present, their contemporary incarnations are marked by the ambiguity or even invisibility of their borders. On reflection, the performances of the public that we recognize from antiquity—the forum, the market, the parliament—tend to work best in urban voids so clearly defined that they may be better understood as tangible volumes, made impenetrable by various thresholds to all those who did not satisfy certain criteria.

Not surprisingly, objects are the strongest agents in establishing these thresholds. In the Migong (2013) installation at Berlin’s Museum for Asian Art, Grcic drew surprising connections between Chinese palaces, standardized safety barriers and the ostensibly “public” space of the museum. A scale replica of a seventeenth-century emperor’s throne lies at the centre of a large gallery; the viewer can access it only by navigating a labyrinth of barriers, evoking the intricate lattice of palaces and courtyards surrounding the Forbidden City. The architecture of Beijing’s core is a direct manifestation of the hierarchies that descended from the emperor to the lowest ranks of society, and one’s place on that spectrum was reinforced at every gate, doorframe or step. We would like to think that the museum is different, that it cuts a wide horizontal swathe through all levels of the population; in theory, the blank slate of the white cube would give no coded messages about who is allowed to enter, judge, touch, critique and curate these precious fruits of a shared culture, and who isn’t. A simple arrangement of galvanized steel tubes and Kee Klamp fittings proves the fallacy of that notion. Even the most “profane off-the-shelf equipment”, in Grcic’s own words, carries an imposing set of coded implications.13

Considering that our environment is full of such mundane objects, perhaps we ought to dispense with the discussion of “public space” altogether. What we now experience could be described rather as “open space”, a steadily expanding universe of agents that negotiate resources, territories and energies in symbiotic, competitive or parasitic relationships. Where “public” denotes a set of mutually intelligible behaviours in keeping with shared ideals, “open” represents a tactical battlefield- cum-ballroom, where virtual forces confront physical phenomena in a variety of ways (often undetectable on the ground) and in a variety of sites, both outside and inside—even in the furthest recesses.

In Space/-1 (2007), Grcic tests one way of manifesting openness in his display for the Mudam Luxembourg’s multimedia archive: the glass capsule contains not only the finished artworks and their electronic screens but also the computers and cables needed to operate the screens. Compared to Migong, the design carries an even more troubling potency. We can choose to ignore banality or pretend that it is neutral, but at least we are aware of its existence. Meanwhile, the things of whose existence we are unaware have a far greater margin of freedom to act—a freedom that necessarily infringes on our own. This phenomenon is highly political, but it is also universally consistent to each stage of technological progress, as well as each sphere of society. In fact, Space/-1 is rather prescient in exposing the venal network of information and energy behind the performance of art in particular, which in the realm of the museum can adopt a veneer of political critique from the safe space of the white cube, and thus ward off any suspicion. As Boris Groys warns, “when art becomes political, it is forced to make the unpleasant discovery that politics has already become art—that politics has already situated itself in the aesthetic field.”14

In the practice of the public, a parallel inversion seems to be taking place: among the most vital organs for the contemporary collective are the Hong Kong hotel rooms and Moscow airport lounges in which Edward Snowden met international journalists to expose the US National Security Agency’s vast surveillance programme, or the Wikileaks server room in a former Swedish nuclear bunker carved into the rock in southern Stockholm—furnished, curiously enough, with Grcic’s Chair_One for Magis. Rather than look at these spaces as anomalies, we must contend with the uncomfortable fact that today’s truly “open” spaces are not those in which we are guaranteed the maximum freedom, but those in which the forces acting around and against us are made transparent and comprehensible. Saskia Sassen calls this process “the work of detecting possible architectures where there now is merely a formal silence, a non-existence, such as a modest and genuinely undistinguished terrain vague”—and it is a task for which designers and architects are required.15

The collective
Whatever the attractions of a space, it cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit.16
— William H. Whyte, “The Design of Spaces”, 1988

As much as Sassen theorizes the need for and existence of new modalities of public practice, she does not abandon entirely a more traditional form of design for the collective or, in her terminology, “making modest public spaces”, albeit with “a novel dimension: the repositioning of the notion and the experience of locality, and thereby of modest public spaces, in potentially global networks comprising many such localities.”17

The possibility sheds light on one of Grcic’s most curious projects—Landen (2007), a freestanding small-scale architectural intervention for sitting together. Landen, unlike most of Grcic’swork, is highly deterministic and rather demanding: it strongly advises a particular social arrangement of people facing inwards, symmetrically arranged. This scenario might seem highly constructed and even artificial for strangers in public space—how can they trust each other to stay put? How do they know if newcomers can be accepted to such an intimate layout? What if there are too many people, or not enough?

Grcic’s intent for Landen was to rethink urban furniture without referring to domestic chairs and sofas. Of course, these infrastructures work very differently in public or in private. A sofa, for instance, draws the members of the family into closer proximity to sit together. Meanwhile, as William H. Whyte pointed out in his 1980s study of New York City public spaces, benches in public tend to be unoccupied in the middle, “but the unused middles are functional for not being used. They provide buffer space”.18 Landen has neither middle nor end, and it attempts to foster a rather unusual level of face-to-face engagement with a few other people in public. Thus it could be seen as a challenging object, were it not for its openly experimental nature. By avoiding any familiar material and behavioural indicators, Grcic leaves space for the user to reinterpret the device, to fill it in or use it as he or she wishes.

In its reference to the Apollo moon lander, pioneered in 1969, Landen reminds us how unusual it is to encounter a genuine prototype for new physical collective formations, and how much such a prototype requires some degree of pioneering audacity. Like the moon lander, Landen becomes interesting as it develops into a network of structures, rather than a solitary figure in the course of history. As one of many individual localities in a global context, it begins to propagate the contradictory and overlapping characteristics of a society operating physically and virtually, from the unexpected intimacy of encounters with strangers to the public broadcasting of private interactions for a curious audience. And perhaps, in time, this reconsideration of the collective as a physical object will foster ever-new ways for friends, lovers and strangers to encounter one another in open space.

  1. Adolf Loos, “Architecture”, trans. Wilfried Wang, The Architecture of Adolf Loos: An Arts Council Exhibition, ed. Yehuda Safran and Wilfried Wang (London, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1985), pp. 104–9.
  2. An installation created by Konstantin Grcic in apartment No. 50 of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille was on display from 15 July to 15 August 2013. Preceding this were installations by Jasper Morrison in 2008 and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec in 2010.
  3. Le Corbusier, The Radiant City, trans. Pamela Knight, Eleanor Levieux and Derek Coltman (New York, Orion Press, 1967), p. 36.
  4. Masks Beat Smog, British Pathé News, 5 February 1959.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “...whereas over 80 per cent of French households possessed a radio in 1961, less than 20 per cent had a television set...Up until the early 1960s, while television was still finding its feet, radio was the established broadcaster, already transmitting to a mass audience.” Raymond Kuhn, The Media in France (London, Routledge, 1995), p. 70.
  7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), p. 15.
  8. Boris Groys, “Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility, e-flux journal 7 (June–August 2009), p. 3.
  9. Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. and trans. Kurt Wolff (New York, Free Press, 1950), p. 409.
  10. The 2nd Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne in Frankfurt am Main (1929), which was devoted to the topic of the minimum-income dwelling (Wohnung für das Existenzminimum), aimed to address the problem of squalid living conditions suffered by the labouring masses in large cities by defining minimum standards for suitable human habitations. In today’s world of high personal mobility and swiftly rising rental prices in major city centres, architects are again debating this issue, for example, at the eponymous symposium in Berlin that took place in 2011.
  11. See Bruno Latour, “On Actor-Network Theory: A few classifications”, Soziale Welt 47/4 (1996), pp. 369–82.
  12. Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik”, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2005), p. 5.
  13. Konstantin Grcic, “Migong”, Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design, 2013, http://konstantin-grcic.com/projects/migong/
  14. Groys, op. cit., p.1.
  15. Saskia Sassen, “Making Public Interventions in Today’s Massive Cities”, Static 4 (2006), p.2.
  16. William H. Whyte, “The Design of Spaces”, The City Reader, ed. Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout (New York, Routledge, 3rd edition, 2003), p. 433.
  17. Sassen, op. cit., p.3.
  18. William H. Whyte, op. cit., p. 434.