Skip to content

Ch.2, pp.66–70

Post date:

In architecture schools we talk a lot about public space and private space and occasionally and with less certainty about semi-public space because the existence of semi-public space implies the existence of a semi-private space. Here we begin to come unstuck. Are they both names for the same kind of transitional space or do they each refer to different kinds of space?

My understanding of semi-public is spaces such as the space between the street and the lobby reception and security doors in an apartment building. On the other side of those doors are the semi-private space including the elevator lobby and the access corridors on each floor. Residents may keep their entrance doors to these corridors open or wear their slippers as they take the trash to the chute it’s not as if they can put personal things other than maybe a doormat in this space. It’s semi-private only in the same way as the lobby space on the other side of security is semi-public by virtue of the public being allowed into only under certain conditions and for short periods of time. Thought of in this way, they’re both different types of in-between space but only in terms of getting from one to the other, and both are very different from what Riken Yamamoto identifies as “thresholds” because it’s not as if anything happens there. They mediate between public and private only in terms of unaccompanied access. The only thing that happens in these spaces between public space and private space is travel. The space itself is called unsellable space because it has no value, and architects are under pressure to minimize the amount of it.

The modern meaning of the word threshold is the floor of the doorway one through passes when entering a residence. It’s usually as deep as the external wall is thick and, since the door will be either open or closed, is a space one transits through, rather than being a transition space as, for example, a boot room or an airlock might be.

Yamamoto uses the word “threshold” to indicate a part of an Ancient Greek house that was thought of as public space, and that protected and separated the private realm of the house. Such spaces are absent in the images above. In the as-built plans for Lake Shore Drive, the front door opens directly into the dining space in units (B), (C), (G, and (F) while, in units (A), (D), (H) and (E), it opens into a small lobby and the door swings in such a way that the kitchen is revealed but the other, “more private” spaces of the unit aren’t. Anyone for whom that door is opened will not be able to see into the more private realm and so we can say these lobbies function as visual thresholds when the door is open. The other four apartments have no such threshold and the change between the private space of the unit and the “pseudo” public space of the corridor is abrupt. The door is never left open for any longer than it needs to be to allow people in or out. It’s not much better with Park Hill’s streets in the sky. You can see in the middle two layouts for before and after below that the relationship of the inside of the unit to how it’s accessed is no different from those shown above. It’s a door that’s either open or closed although to be fair the front door sidelights could reveal signs of life on the other side. The scene looks social but the girl has nobody to play with, the lady with the scarf is on here way out and can’t stop to chat, and the lady in the apron and street shoes isn’t being invited inside for a cup of tea. Nobody’s crossing those decoratively tiled thresholds. These relationships between inside and outside don’t change with the refurb.

I only mention this to illustrate how housing once thought of as innovative fails on the very criteria it wanted to be judged by. “Streets in the sky” they may be but that’s not saying very much. The Smithson’s Park Hill simply replaced existing dwellings and streets with more of the same relationships. Door-barriers maintain separation of the private and public realms just as they always did. The year was 1961 and there was no awareness space could be something other than a functional container or either public space or private space. Within a decade, semi-public/private space in Western architecture was to renamed and redesigned as “defensible space” intended to exclude people but, from 1972 onwards, Japanese architects Hiroshi Hara and Riken Yamamoto were to begin a global survey of “threshold space” intended to welcome include them. [c.f. Defensible Space] Last week’s post was about worker housing and how it set the template for how we live today, with our “privacy” separating us from the societies we live in. This week’s installment adds to that.

• • • 

  • When I began this translation, I had little idea I would be translating so many of Hannah Arendt sentences, some of which are most likely well known. It’s daunting, especially since extracting the meaning from them is not always simple. Sentences like the first one below seem, at first reading, counterintuitive. Others I’ve had to translate once and then return to them and revise. In other words, the going got tough. I have renewed admiration for Yamamoto for discovering Arendt’s writings, for finding what is meaningful to him in them, but most of all for translating that into architecture.

• • • 

2 The Experience of Worker Housing

The right to be seen, the right to be heard

Arendt writes “A state of deprivation is the most essential thing if one is to live a life of perfect privacy.” (The Human Condition, p.85) As for what is being lost, it is “the reality that is born from being seen and being heard by others” “Also lost is being able to see other people and to hear other people, and the reality that one is together with the (other) people around oneself. ” (ibid.) “It is living with a sense of closeness that does not include others.” (ibid. p.61) Housing and houses are the most important spaces that hold this closeness.

To repeat, “the private realm is something that comes with the public realm.” The private realm is connected to the public realm by the “threshold”. When we are in the intimate and close space of the private realm, we are simultaneously aware of being in a different space that is not the public realm. A state where we cannot participate in the public realm is understood by those people (and by extension, by us) – as being in “a state where something is lost”.

We have absolutely no comprehension that we are living in state where our private lives have lost something. We think that maintaining the privacy of our daily lives is a matter of course. We have lost the awareness of “being able to be seen and being able to be heard.” This is a question. We know that the space outside is managed space but when we are inside the space of the house we do not think we are being managed. This is another question.

The energy of love conceals it from the world’s inhabitants

Arendt writes “The awareness that something important has been lost and that our daily lives are missing something and lives that are spent only within the limited realm of a household is something that the emergence of Christianity greatly weakened to the point of extinction, and contradicts the commandment to “love thy neighbor.” (The Human Condition, p.89) The energy of love abandons the world and hides itself from its inhabitants. It denies the world’s public part of space that has been given to people and in which all things and all people can be seen and be heard by others.” (ibid., p.109) This “public part” is the public realm. It is where people’s actions can be seen and can be heard by others. Christian love denies the public realm. People who have lost the public realm are equalized. “The clarity of this equalization is expressed in the commandment to love thy neighbor. If one’s neighbor is fundamentally no different from oneself and carries the same guilt from the past as you do and therefore one must love them, and if that love is to be reciprocated by all one’s neighbors then all people are equal, then the spaces in which these unified people live are places smoothly linked to the outside.” (Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, p. 155) It is therefore necessary for these “spaces in which equalized people live, to enclose and protect close relationships that exist only for oneself. This is why the escape to privacy is necessary. Even though this privacy for what is close and personal is separated and distanced from the outside, there is still a sense that something is missing. This is Arendt’s interpretation. The private sphere is a place for sexual relations and those other expendable processes for the continuation of life. The reason for this is that the private realm is not a place that has any kind of longevity. The public space that guarantees longevity is the only place where people can be “living together”. (ibid. p.43)

Even if the closeness and intimacy of the private lives is something that is deeply related to the Christian worldview, it is worker housing where the “place for private life” became a specific space. Worker housing was already separated from the outside and, by living in this worker housing, they could live in a uniform managed society on the one hand and live an intimate personal life on the other. In this Christian worldview that Arendt writes of, the importance is of the houses being “materialized” as something specific. This closeness is something that can be felt for the first time by living in houses separated from the outside. Henry Roberts’ housing design for workers is where this began. It was housing for close family. It was “housing for “one house per family” housing. At the time, there were hardly any worker families living in housing such as this. “It was not unusual for one family of parents, four or five children and perhaps a grandparent to move, eat and sleep in one room 10 or 12 feet per side.” (Engels, F., The Condition of the Working Class in England, Vol.1, p.72) In passing, in Vienna ion 1910, there were only 5,734 houses with only one family living in them, accounting for only 1.2% of the population. (Janik, A. and Toulmin, S.E., Wittgenstein’s Vienna, p.81) This was the situation. For these people, having an entire house for one family was a dream. Worker housing was dream housing for the close life of the family and nothing else was as important. This was what architects thought. This is what the people who were to live in them thought.

• • • 

2024/05/05 Ch. 2, pp.66-70 [this post]
2024/05/05 Ch. 2, pp.58-66
2024/05/05 Ch. 1, pp.46-55
2024/04/28 Ch. 1, pp.35-46
2024/04/21 Ch. 1, pp.23-35
2024/04/07 Ch. 1, pp.18-23
2024/03/31 Ch. 1, pp.14-18
2024/03/24 The Space of Power vs. The Power of Space: Preface pp. 7-11

* * *

Revisited this week: