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Working From Home

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At one time we all either worked from home or in the fields not too distant. If you were in feudal Europe, your “home” was likely to be some kind of peasant cottage provided by the landowner so you wouldn’t waste daylight commuting. It wasn’t provided out of kindness. Housing provided by employers never is, least of all that called “workers’ housing”. If the farm was in an area with an overabundance of unmarketable rock, then the housing was probably constructed of that rock with little or no commodity value. Same for the roof. Reeds and straw had negligible commodity value and so the thatch roof was invented, and not just in Europe. Rocks and thatch were locally sourced materials but these houses weren’t trying to improve their LEED rating or trying to be picturesque for our sake. Only the very wealthy could afford glass windows. Everybody else had to keep the wind ow-t with sheets of animal horn. It’s actually quite translucent. I never knew.

Writers have a tradition of working from home and our typical image of where they put their quills, typewriters or computers study or library lined with books and visually, audibly and spatially separated from the rest of the house. Painters had their studios in the space having the best daylighting but, with writers, the assumption was that peace and seclusion were necessary conditions for imagination and creativity. The writer’s study or library became a sanctuary into which only allowable sources of inspiration were books, paintings and a view of the world outside. The tower in the below left image was the library of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). One of his pieces of advice for a happy life was to have a secluded place in which to work uninterrupted and undistracted by everything but wanted distractions that, in his case could be artworks, books and, most famously, his cat. (The third image from the left is the contemporary view from where the desk might have been. On the easel is a drawing (right) showing how the bookcases might have appeared.)

Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957) was an interesting character who managed to offend both Hitler and Mussolini yet live. His famous house that he either designed, co-designed or commissioned Adalberto Libera to design is not easy to get to. It featured a library/study with the house’s only window facing out to sea. It’s the rightmost room in the middle image below and can only be accessed via the bedroom. It’s a sanctuary with a privileged view and symbolically the most important space in the house, even if that space is probably not as large as it appears in the photograph. Malaparte can’t have managed to spend much time at this wonderful workspace as the house was only completed in 1938 after he’d spent the previous five years in exile and was arrested again in 1938, 1939, 1941, and 1943. Still, it’s a nice workspace to even dream of being in.

So the, this post is about how work and home remain conceptually separate despite the work providing the income that sustains the home. The big takeaway from Casa del Malaparte is that having a secluded space to facilitate some kind of intellectual work isn’t incompatible with that space having some kind of symbolic importance befitting its life-sustaining importance. When at his desk, Malaparte was captain of his ship. Unfortunately (and probably because the simultaneous advent of Covid and online meeting capabilities forced it upon us) we see living (in the home) as the default state and the work (that makes that living possible) as an aberration, an intrusion. We still don’t have an answer to the work-to-live or live-to-work question so perhaps the question is wrong. The working to live while downplaying the work that makes the living possible isn’t good for living or for working. And so the home study or library as sanctuary survives as both concept and reality. Many websites will present 150, 100, 50, 10 or even five best examples of writers and their desk-spaces for you to emulate even though writerly talent doesn’t really work like that.

Living behind shops probably has a longer history than living above shops but that history was visible for longer with Japan’s tradition of machiya [lit., city house] with a shop on the street side and the living space behind, with the shop space being the interface between house and street. Recently, architect Riken Yamamoto said he grew up in a machiya with the shop being a pharmacy run by his parents. You can see such an arrangement in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 movie Tokyo Story where domestic comings and goings are through the beauty salon at front. This arrangement did Japan well in the post-WWII years, with many front spaces repurposed or used for some type of home (cottage) industry. Machiya are belatedly coming to the UK, I read. With “high-street” retail and commercial spaces becoming increasingly redundant, those spaces including (necessary service spaces such as) barbershops are being converted into commercial spaces with living space behind. The example I read about was this former barbershop being converted into an architects’ office with residential behind. The soundbite “one swallow does not a summer make” is attributed to Aristotle but, in architecture, all we need is two instances for something to become a thing. Regardless of whether or not it does, using under-utilized urban spaces is of course a good thing as long as the new business isn’t dependent upon passing trade. Mostly however, the architecture of live-work spaces became the machiya “style” townhouse abutting the street and with the retail space at ground level retail. This is less about providing workspaces than it is about monetizing street level windows unsellable as residential space. Such modern machiya usually have a back door to provide separate domestic access even though this isn’t setting a very high bar for innovation.

Live-work units have been around since oh 1990 as a way of “rejuvenating” “run-down” outer inner-city areas with “young and entrepreneurial” startups. I visited this live-work unit by Plasma Studios during some architecture open week event in the late 1990s. Here, the working and living spaces are organized as a coiled line with studio and street access at the lowest level and the bathroom at the highest. If you wanted to, you could say it’s vertical machiya.

Working from home is something many of us have recent experience of, either involuntarily as a result of our recent pandemic, or voluntarily when businesses relying upon knowledge workers offered the option of working from home as a means of reducing their fixed costs of providing and maintaining office space. It suited some types of work more than others and suited some types of people more than others. On the whole, people liked working from home so much that cities such as London began to wonder what would happen if too many people decided they could do without office buildings meant to represent a thriving economy. People became used to doing work things in home environments. For a while, people experienced the life of exclusive private hedge-fund managers who had worked from home anyway. The ZOOM meeting or its competitors’ equivalent became the new substitute for face-to-face meetings for jobs such as teaching that used to require it.

The three images below are of workspaces of people from before all this happened. All three have varying degrees of apparent disorderliness and this is probably where our association of it with creativity comes from., However, the disorderliness in the desks of (from left to right) Martin Amis, John Updike and Albert Einstein seems temporary in nature.

While Emile Zola, Joan Didion, and Nigella Lawson aren’t conceptually congruent, they all illustrate what happens when cameras enter the space for working from home. Zola is studiously studying in his study. Didion is caught without a chair in a studied informality, while Lawson’s library shelves are heaving with sombery-bound books, stacks of un-shelved ones in the foreground, assorted artworks and – ffs – a vase of tulips on the floor. All this and Lawson’s pensive silhouette suggest this was not a candid photo. Real objects are being used to create a virtual reality for the sake of the camera and, natch, us as observers.

Some of us might’ve had bookcases behind our desks anyway because books, computers and desks work well together. Some people may even have had a wall of IKEA’s Billy bookcases behind their desk so all they had to do to make their background camera-friendly for interviews and meetings was delegate incongruous novels and hobby books to locations off-camera. People say you can’t judge a book by its cover but people can’t help running their eyes across other people’s bookshelves. Thus we have hence the “credibility bookshelf” with actual books in actual shelves, but curated so their titles en-masse produce specific impressions such as Literary Heavyweight, Trend Finder, Politically Astute. Etc. This phenomenon seems to have arisen either directly or indirectly from journalists and reporters broadcasting during Covid but I’d like to think people in those professions didn’t need to do too much curating.

There’s more than one website titled Ten Amazing ZOOM Backgrounds that vary from the grotesquely cheesy to the grotesquely aspirational, the latter usually featuring modern furniture and a coastal landscape seen through a wall of glass. dwell offers some that are more stylish but no less grotesque for it. The message is that one retreats to their coastal home but is still contactable. Work intrudes into a domestic scene, even if it’s a virtual one. One either wonders what’s being concealed or is unnerved seeing people’s insecurities on display.

Nerdy note: Companies providing streaming videoconferencing services like it when you use a static background or opt for the blurry one as it reduces their corporate bandwidth by reducing the number of pixels that must be continually refreshed. One way of doing this is to give less priority to those parts of the image that don’t move. By now, it’s probably more sophisticated than just giving priority to the middle third (or ninth) of the frame. There’s no point to video conferencing if you can’t see the moving eyes or mouth of the person you’re speaking to and so images are processed to identify and prioritize this type of information. Trying to videoconference while walking is the worst possible situation because every pixel must be continually refreshed and your connection will probably hang or fail completely. Having a static background, not wearing strongly patterned clothing and not making any sudden movements such as waving your hands about (like you’re giving a TedTalk) will all help. If you notice a delay in refreshing your ears then you’re probably not staying sufficiently still.

This working from home thing is still playing out but our preferred virtual location is one that gives the appearance of working from someplace other than where we are. Montaigne and Malaparte didn’t have to worry about their camera background but, even when nobody else was to see their workplace, the location of Montaigne’s library in the tower and Malaparte’s in prime position in his house provided the act of working from home with a symbolic importance appropriate to their role in making the house possible and living worthwhile. This symbolic importance was there for the occupant only, and not for others to appreciate. The only benefit these locations had for other persons was via the work produced in them.

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Before we think about ways of giving working from home a sense of place befitting its importance, it might be an idea to at least link our virtual work environment to something more conceptually appropriate. Even if it’s only just swapping one form of pretension for a lesser one, these are my current top twelve online meeting background picks for those in the architecture industry. Let’s not think too deeply about what meaning any of them even has for work, meetings or productivity. Eleven have the horizon line in the middle of the frame and will be fine as long as you position your eyes at that level. The interior of Saint-Chapelle which will work better if you angle your camera slightly heavenward. Anyone wanting to give the full 110% will adjust the direction and colour temperature of their illumination accordingly. I’m liking the Sebastiano Serlio drawing more and more for its theatricality. There’s no likelihood any of these backgrounds will be mistaken for reality or even for an aspiration to it and that’s a small step in the right direction. If they’re seen as ironic, then they’re only ironically so and that degree of separation is another step in the right direction.

Many people claim embarrassment at their untidy homes as their justification for the use of virtual backgrounds. Well, why not just tidy up a bit and take a photo? Being upfront prior to the beginning of the meeting is best.

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