Brittany Utting: 138 MODEL HOMES

FWD /: Hi Brittany, what is your project, 138 MODEL HOMES, about?

Brittany Utting: Last year, I was the Willard A. Oberdick Fellow here at Taubman College. My fellowship project, 138 MODEL HOMES, was a set of investigations that sought to reframe the home: how the domestic interior functions as an ideological and political space that constructs identity, gender, ethics, and social power. The project was quite literally 138 model homes that I designed and displayed as a set of plans, organizational charts, and slogans.

The plans are simple abstractions of the home, redrawn as a series of rooms with the bare functions of where to bathe, sleep, work, relax, and eat. The org chart further abstracts the home as a series of connections and organizational tendencies. How does a bedroom maintain privacy through a hallway? How does a shared kitchen construct a new type of commons within an otherwise privately occupied and owned home?

Finally, the part I was most excited about was the slogan. It was a way to bring in an idea of tone within the otherwise generic floor plan of the home. One of the sources that I began with were the Sears Catalog Homes from the 1930s. Their slogans often had an overtly paternalistic air, such as: “A home like the Milford is a credit to you, your family, and every neighborhood,” inflecting an attitude about family, hygiene, privacy, ownership and territory, morality and propriety. The question became, could we use the home instead to define new subjectivities not currently accommodated in the domestic interior? I wanted to co-opt these slogans and produce a completely different definition of a household.

F/: The org chart you created reads as a cybernetic map of relationships. It makes us think you wrote a script. How did you design the homes?

BU: The org chart functions as a sort of software that neutrally redraws the layout of the home. It simply notates room type and adjacency: for example, one bedroom next to a bathroom next to a kitchen. As a method, I wanted to work through the almost automated combinatorics of placing one room and then another room and then another room without predicting the type of domestic diagram it would produce.

The org chart is interesting because it takes the home and isolates its programmatic function. It remaps the house as a series of nodes and connections, erasing the conventions and protocols of the suburban interior. It decouples the home from the imaginary of the American Dream, in order for us to abstract and therefore re-conceptualize domestic space. It was essentially a distancing technique.

F/: Is there ever a fear or concern over how much the design of a space can do, when so many ideas around the home are embedded in deeper social, political, and economic origins. What if the architecture is not enough to subvert these power structures?

BU: I like to look at architecture as a framework. It’s an infrastructure that produces and embodies a form of life. By reducing the home to a series of rooms characterized by specific furnishings and fixtures, the abstraction of the diagram allows us to decouple the home from its iconography. Through the transformation of the home into a series of rooms, stripped of their traditional functions and narratives, we can defamiliarize the familiar. If a space is re-conceived as neutral or abstract, emptied of content, it has the capacity to reframe new forms of life.

This project is a proposition for a new way of living but at the same time, it has its own baggage, its own set of power structures and systems of kinships. These homes could become new spaces for freedom with new conceptions of how to live together; but at the same time, they could also impose a new set of hierarchies and power structures. Architecture participates in framing a new way of life, but it does demand a specific ethos from its inhabitants about what it means to live together and what it means to hold things in common. It’s not just the architecture that produces these new conditions, but a new collective spirit.

F/: Last semester, you paired “Familiar Horror: Toward a Critique Of Domestic Space” by Pier Vittorio Aureli and Maria Shéhérazade Giudici with the presentation of the project. The article discusses domesticity as a construct to push new types of consumption. This was centered around improving the home through buying appliances, refurbishing, and beautifying. This further reinforced the home as a woman’s domain where they were tasked with ‘unpaid labor’ of maintenance. How does your project take away those hierarchies? How did this text influence your thinking about the home?

BU: I was most interested in the abstraction of the home into a series of typological diagrams. How do you produce a generic domestic type? By generic, I mean typical, indifferent to content, neutral, refusing to take a strong stance; a simply identification of a place to sleep, a place to eat, a place to play, and a place to work. Disassociating program from the developer logic of “two bedrooms, one and a half bath” generates a radically different set of spatial relationships and associations. How can the simple elimination of the hallway undermine the expectations of privacy? How does the removal of the private kitchen open up spaces of collective use and negotiation? How does the multiplication and redundancies of spaces for leisure or labor create new patterns of occupancy, use, cohabitation, and commerce within the home?

Moreover, what does it mean today to work in the home? In today’s gig economy, the home is not only a space of domestic labor; it is increasingly a space of immaterial labor. As architects, students, and academics, we are all freelancers, always working from home. I wanted to reprogram the home to reflect this new condition.

F/: More specifically, how did gender and feminist theory come in to your design for this project?

BU: One of the thinkers I am most influenced by is Hannah Arendt, who wrote a book called The Human Condition. In the text, she defines the condition of work versus labor. Work produces a durable object that cannot be consumed; something permanent that belongs to a larger cultural identity, such as art or architecture. Labor, however, is the cyclical maintenance of the body through consumption: eating, clothing, bathing, and sheltering oneself. It is the endless reproduction of the human organism.

The labor of the household has traditionally been the exclusive burden of the woman because of the biological realities of child bearing. The relationship between the female body and domestic space is conditioned through this reality. She maintains the home, performing the often-invisible labor of caregiving rather than breadwinning. It is not just the home, but all spaces of labor that construct these roles defined through gender. This seemingly axiomatic condition is what I was most interested in questioning.

F/: Listening to your presentation and reading the description on your website, ideas around the home and gender are less explicit. Was that by choice?

BU: Yes, because the home participates in many constructions of identity. Gender is perhaps the most visible, but I wanted to point to the role of the home as a participant in a larger conversation about identity, politics, and economics. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the home has been a space of incredible risk, but remains a space of financial opportunity. How can we actually address the economic infrastructures of home ownership and use? Because the project is about the home, it is necessarily about gender. However, it seeks to address other critical issues such as power, precarity, collectivity, and the maintenance of the public and private self.

F/: Has this influenced your other courses and projects?

BU: The current project I’m working on with my partner Daniel Jacobs, UN-WORKING, interrogates the role of architectural labor within pedagogy. The two projects do have a shared set of issues about precarity and production. However, more related to the fellowship project, I currently teach a UG3 studio entitled NO-STOP CO-OPT. The studio interrogates the performative aspects within spaces of labor and leisure, designing a live-work-play environment. Proposals incorporate programming for cooperative living, collective labor, and social and political performance, imagining how we continuously participate in the aesthetic and political imaginary of domestic space.

F/: That seems related to one of our readings, “Domesticity at War” by Beatriz Colomina. She talks about the advent of television and media that brought the public into the private. The home as a private entity is dissipating. It seems to be more relevant now with phones. Now you’re broadcasting yourself on social media and listing your space on Airbnb. Are these issues for your studio?

BU: Absolutely. One of the big goals of this studio is to reimagine how digital platforms and social media are completely overturning our expectations of domestic space and privacy. There is a collective ethos emerging from the normalization of the digital, especially in how the sharing economy has repurposed the home and its infrastructures. These new platforms are critically reframing the traditional domains of domestic space as a space of immaterial labor. We are reimagining how the public is infiltrating our private lives, what it means to own a space privately or cooperatively. The practice of sharing can be a space of empowerment and enrichment, but it is also a reflection of the real precarity of our generation.

F/: Lastly, fun questions. What are you reading?

BU: Right now, I’m reading Hito Steyerl’s Duty Free Art. Her work and research investigates how digital platforms are producing a radically new set of issues entangling space, information, ethics, violence, and even romance. It’s incredible!

F/: What are you watching?

BU: I have a bit of an obsession with The Office. I watch it over and over again because it recreates the endless cycle of our own labor. The kind of continuous, yet optimistic, repetition of nothing. I love it. The most perfect tableau of our daily lives.

F/: That’s a good place to end this. The Office!
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