SQM: The Quantified Home


13 November 2014

For the last decade I’ve had a recurring nightmare. It might seem banal, but it always jolts me back into consciousness with a feeling of dread.

It’s about an apartment that I've bought in some nondescript city and I’m having my first tour of it after being handed the keys by the real-estate agent. It’s not the nicest of places, it needs decorating and looks a little gloomy, but nothing that a fresh lick of paint can’t remedy. The real problem is, the apartment never ends.

Room follows room and what is initially  homely and familiar – kitchen, bathroom, bedroom – slowly becomes grander and more spacious, ultimately ending up in roof terraces, swimming pools, grand staircases. The last time I had the dream, there was even a museum tagged on at the end of the very long walk before I finally woke up worrying about what to do with all that space. 

Of course my nightmare is a real-estate developer's wet dream. In New York $50,000 gets you 3.3m2. In this undefined city of mine, I receive endless space for little more than $200,000. But instead of celebrating this stroke of luck (an oversight by the estate agent?) I feel increasingly panicked, because the never-ending floor area means my newly purchased home stops being a home. And after all that was what I wanted to invest in; not a project.

This dream came to mind when visiting the exhibition SQM: The Quantified Home. Curated by Joseph Grima and his research collective Space Caviar for the design Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk it investigates how the way we live is rapidly changing. “What we used to call home may not even exist anymore, having transmuted into a financial commodity measured in square metres.”

Subverting the way we appreciate space, you enter the exhibition through a temporary doorway cut into the first floor of the western facade of the Broelschool, a to-be-demolished Catholic boarding school, that is accessed by a narrow, makeshift set of stairs. From there, a yellow electric cable leads you through the building on a 300m long walk where new doorways and openings have been created by removing parts of walls and cutting holes between floors.

This large-scale installation was the result of a week-long residency in the school, during which Space Caviar and a team of designers and artists developed a series of interventions that play with the texture of the abandoned building, turning it into an artwork for visitors to wander through. 

Anything created in the school was made using debris from the building itself. Nothing new was added from the outside, except for short, obscure texts that revealed developments related to housing from the mid-19th century until the present day. Although the setting was a former educational institution, it was fitting for a display concerning our present day’s angst over the space of home, especially considering that the school is now, post-event, being turned into a luxury development of apartments.

As an installation, the walk-through was impactful, especially considering my own personal nocturnal wanderings, albeit rather bewildering as a representation of research into the history of the home. Instead, a catalogue of the same title can be considered the main documentation of this history. It’s most likely this is what most people will now interact with, given that it has recently been published by Lars Müller.  

Made up of three sections – Radical Domesticities, From Dream to Bust and The Dematerialised Home – the book is akin to a traditionally-curated exhibition. In the first section we are taken through a series of historical case studies where the home became a political frontier in projects such as the Frankfurt Kitchen by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens in London in excellent essays by Hilde Heynen and Justin McGuirk.

In the second part the mood changes and we see how the original ideals of 20th century housing are turned on their head, for example when rules and planning regulations are subverted by neoliberal capitalism. An essay and interview by Gabrielle Brained and Jacob Reidel with Robert Scarano Jr, an architect who became an expert on subverting planning laws in Brooklyn in the 1980s and 1990s with his luxury condominiums positioned on narrow plots of land is an interesting insight into housing developments that are often ignored by the architecture press. In the same section Sam Jacob also offers musings on the luxury basements of oligarchs in his essay London is Liquid. “They can’t go up, and certainly can’t be torn down. Their exterior urban form, in other words, is protected. So the only way is down,” says Jacob about London’s terraced houses on the streets of Chelsea and Kensington, comparing them to Bond villains’ lairs and the houses that accommodate them are likened to icebergs.

In the final section Dan Hill’s The Commodification of Everything sums up our present attitude to home, not just as an opportunity for developers to make a buck, but for us all to profit from through new initiatives such as Restaurant Day in Helsinki, where people open up their kitchens for trade or, more famously, the website Airbnb where people’s spare bedrooms have become a lucrative market. Airbnb now offers more than 800,000 beds in rental accommodation in some 34,000 cities.

My dream then seems to reflect very contemporary anxieties about the home and what is currently happening to it. Just like my imaginary Tardis of a dwelling lacks a clear distinction between what’s mine and potentially “other”, the boundaries of home are nowadays much vaguer. Opened up through the world wide web, we broadcast our homes on social media and forums where they can be traded for comments, likes or money. We have all turned into casual developers where we can capitalise on our personal square metres without the need for architects, planners or designers. All you need is a spare mattress and some fresh linen. I guess next time I wake up in a cold sweat halfway through my flat view I shall just reassure myself with the potential rental opportunities my imaginary home will afford me if advertised on Airbnb.