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Dr Tarsha Finney and MA City Design consider: What is home?

What is home? is an important question to Dr Tarsha Finney and the students on MA City Design. It is one that gains particular urgency in the context of the climate emergency, which Dr Finney explains is ‘a political and systemic problem; it’s not something that we can address as individuals. As experts in spatial disciplines we need to use the tools we have to work out at what scale we begin to address this.’

Regional Food Production, London Metropolitan Region
Regional Food Production, London Metropolitan Region, Lana Lijic, Elena Vasileva, Trisha Sarkar
What is home? is also the subject of a week-long symposium at MPavilion, Australia’s leading architecture commission and cultural laboratory in Queen Victoria Gardens, Melbourne, presented in collaboration with the RCA. At the symposium, Dr Finney and MA City Design students explored the question of home and domesticity through new approaches to shared housing and the modern family.

‘Fantastic work is being done in Melbourne and Victoria around new logics of collectivity at the scale of the building block, with initiatives such as Nightingale’ Dr Finney explained. ‘However there is more work to be done thinking through the problem of domesticity itself – what is the new scale in which we will find meaningful intimacy and care – amongst ourselves, for intergenerational living, for future generations – and for our non-human kin? Who are we together?’

Dr Finney spoke with Jen Zielinska from MPavilion ahead of the symposium about the nature of home.

The concept of ‘home’ is a very loaded one, subject to all kinds of social, political and commercial forces. What does the ideal home look like to you now, in 2020?

There are several ways I could answer this. On one level, the ideal home for me – and for us on MA City Design – is something that can respond to an increasing desire we have for intimacy and care, for intergenerational lives, for lives that are able to accommodate human and non-human kin as we pay better attention to the rich natural ecologies that support us and that we have a responsibility to and for.  

The ideal home is something that can support new kinds of collective lives that are able to pool resources, find responses and solutions together to issues like energy consumption and production, water, food production, consumption and waste. Home is where we have historically thought through these problems and it is through the discursive material socio-politics of home that we can begin to find solutions to much larger problems: climate change and its challenges, ageing populations, new labour conditions, mobility and the need for labour solidarity.

What challenges do architects and city designers face in realising an ideal home for the future?

Zwicky Sud co-operative housing, Zurich. Schneider Studer Primas Architects.
Zwicky Sud co-operative housing, Zurich. Schneider Studer Primas Architects
Photographer: Image Tarsha Finney

The problem with thinking about our ideal homes is that domestic subjectivity is entirely cultivated within the hierarchies and the spatial arrangements of home. There is no outside from which to look to see clearly another possible future. Everything that can be said about the home is pre-determined by its discursive diagrammatic condition: domesticity. 

On the one hand it’s very easy to be critical of this machinery of domesticity – its heteronormative dominance, its tight bundling of finance, industrial production and manufacturing. On the other hand, as an instrument it has been very successful. Remembering the challenge of creating the new, what we are always looking for in the MA City Design is not the answer, but rather the conditions of experimentation. The question is how do we deploy the disciplinary intelligence of architecture to find the conditions of experimentation. Then we need to ask ourselves who we are together, and who we want to become. 

In the midst of this unprecedented ecological crisis, what forms of action do architects, urbanists and landscape architects need to take?

We need to recognise the limits of our professions – the limits of our work as service professionals to a development industry that continues to operate as if this is business as usual. Extracting profit out of housing and urban transformation is a problem if it is not creating the conditions of experimentation that contribute to meaningful solutions in the context of climate change.

At the same time, we should notice that our disciplinary skill sets have great value.  We are projective and speculative. We are able to imagine possible futures for others – to represent, abstract, clarify, visualise vast amounts of information currently knotted into wicked problems. We are able to work on the object in drawing, even before we begin to work on the tangible object of material. We are able to make very complex problems visible to other disciplines, wider communities and complex competing stakeholders, not necessarily to propose solutions, but to enable others to join the conversation, contribute intelligence, or local specific contextual information.

Finally as a discipline, and as citizens, we need to become more skilled at politics. Perhaps the politics of direct elected office – to become comfortable with our head and shoulders above the parapet. But more so, it is toward the politics of productive disagreement that our skill-sets can be put to work, in a process of agonism. We need to return to one of the most fundamental questions of the modern city: how do we take from the few to benefit the many? And we need to widen our understanding of the many: not only for ourselves, but to broaden that to include our precious non-human kin.

Urban infrastructure of care and water in Canada Water, London
Urban infrastructure of care and water in Canada Water, London, Aglaia Lampropoulou, Myrto Kozaki, Joanna Chebl, Ursulo Juarez Peniche, Dongyang Mi

What are the benefits of having five students be part of this program with RCA and MPavilion?

Our MA City Design students come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. We have students from Germany, China, Israel and Korea. They have spent one term at the RCA where we have spent a huge amount of time cultivating an argument regarding domesticity, housing and disciplinary futures – based on several years of research in the MA City Design. 

As part of the programme we work in diverse political contexts: London in the borough of Haringey, a council area that sits within the lowest 10% of socio-economic indicators nationally in the UK; Barcelona with the incredibly progressive administration in Barcelona en comu on their complexity and proximity strategy for the development of super blocks and the delivery of social services for their ageing populations; and Hong Kong looking at the challenges of foreign domestic labour forces and the use of public space in the city. 

Melborne provides another context to test and apply our ideas. Australia presents an incredibly interesting political context for students of other countries to consider. A mature, some would say one of the most successful democracies globally. Australia has a rich history of experimentation in residential housing and has been at the forefront of progressive social policy in many ways, and yet – there is very little work being done in terms of co-operative housing, shared spaces and new ways of living together. We are excited to be sharing this trajectory of research and design work with the city.

This is an edited version of an interview by Jen Zielinska from MPavilion.

Find out more about MA City Design and how to apply.