Peeping Tom and the Everyday

14/04/20

Our Development and Comms Manager, Zoë Cave, wrote about the simples bits of the everyday life around the city that keep wheels turning even when everything else is in lockdown. 

 

My mum could talk to anyone. She can get someone's life story in one bus journey. And so somewhat unsurprisingly, my mum loves autumn. Why? It’s the time of year the nights are drawing in but we haven’t quite sunk into winter and so don’t immediately draw the curtains to keep the elements out, the heat in. In the autumn, the front-rooms looking out onto the street are lit and humming against the dark of early evening, and from the street we can glimpse into the pottering of people's twilight rituals. The playing out of a mundane domestic scene is comforting in the way it is simultaneously the same as so many and yet totally unique to that person and that home. In my mum’s harmless peeping, she says she’s had a glimpse at a life story.

Harmless as this may be, this sort of peeping is not always welcomed; the net curtains, frosted windows, bespoke shutters, the premium paid for the privacy of a penthouse. That said, and perhaps in my mother's defense, the privacy associated with home is definitely cultural. As a Brit living in Amsterdam, I was delighted at the gift of unadulterated peeping that this city gave me. The homes with huge windows that no one felt compelled to screen from me. The street was the front row view into the performance of ‘home’.

What my mum and I are enjoying - again, in our defense - on a more transcendent way than pure idle nosiness, is the relationship between space and us, looking in at how the familiar space of a home is enacted by strangers just going about their day to day-ness. The staging of intimate activities that make up a life we know nothing about, hosting the most (un)remarkable bits of just ‘being’.

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Housing has recently been the site of much debate; as infrastructure, as a commodity, as architecture. But it’s the messiness of dwelling that enacts house to home as it becomes the site of the dwellers ‘everyday’. Simply, it is private space with walls that boundary us from public life. But how the home is talked about, its discourse, varies between different circles of thought. For instance, feminists brought this private space of the home full throttle into mainstream debate. ‘The private is political’ translated the home from a purely private place to a site for political consideration. This broke down carefully constructed walls, realigning where the boundaries of public were drawn.

In the field of design, the home can be re-conceived as objective space. Created through the professional management of light, materials, colour and expertly engineered whilst being beautifully designed, it is manipulated and perfected, recognised as architecture. To varying degrees, it can be abstracted from the everyday practices carried out there, but done well it can centre, heighten and optimise the everyday practices and those who carry them out. And hopefully with big old street facing windows for me and my mum.

Irrespective of how you approach and discuss the home, in March 2020 and beyond, it has our unwavering attention as we go into lockdown. We are reminded that despite the resentment and claustrophobia we might be feeling, to self-isolate safely and comfortably in a home should not be taken for granted. For those of us lucky enough, we are confined to, protected by and totally indebted to our homes. A lot of this housing we find ourselves in is quite unremarkable, a lot of it mass produced, strangulated by design standards and considered by some architects as ‘crude, bad and ugly’. But nevertheless, it is dwelt in by us. The everyday architecture of the home, of housing, is now the site of our everything.

As much as it might feel like the activities that make London are at a stand-still, the activities of the everyday carry on in some way or another and you can see it around the city (during your one walk a day). Balconies as extensions of our home suspended over the street, host our laundered and drying pants and shirts, or they provide a place for our stuff, those objects that make up our lives, the collated props for living. Housing block by housing block, each balcony stacked on top of each other is an identically designed space, but perfectly turned into its own place by those who live there, and they reassuringly platform the little parts of our lives that carry on.

There's comfort in the continuation of our most mundane activities despite the huge changes in the outside world. But these changes leak into our homes too. Staying put and sitting tight means other odd spaces in our houses take on different uses. These can be wholly positive in some cases, doorways and windows are now stages for the collective gesture of the NHS clap. The density of the city, the closeness of the walls lining our streets, echoes the chorus of claps, cheers and the banging of the domestic drum: the pan. And alongside this novel new activity to structure our weeks, our homes are being asked to host more of our activities than ever before.

Working from home; a phenomenon growing in popularity but never mandated at this scale. We’ve been asked to do the seemingly simple shift of the typical site of our work - the office - into our homes. For those of us limited to a kitchen table to work, it’s no longer a place where I consume and enjoy the fruits of my labour, but instead it’s now the site of labour too. As the home becomes the site for our everything, we no longer have what now seems like the luxury of moving between spaces to indicate what version of our self is at play. The change of scenery that punctuates our day. All of this is the blurring of an already difficult to maintain boundary between the private self and work. We’re missing the step of the lowly, irritating commute, traversing London from work to home, from public to private, with my front door being the joyful full-stop to the end of the working day.

This blurring is particularly heightened with the virus-proof, widely used, video meeting. Popping your colleagues on camera to remind us that other people exist beyond our partner, our children, or our housemate, creates a portal and there I am peeping into the place of my colleagues' private lives. I admire glorious swiss cheese plants, impressive book collections, a well-endowed mantel piece, the renaissance of the wallpaper. How they choose to dwell, how their personal taste manifests in the previously unseen nooks of their home, the backdrop of their everyday, is made relatively public. I don’t need to wait for autumn and a well-lit room with undrawn curtains for my dose of nose.

I’m sure I don’t actually miss commuting and if the worst thing to come from my lockdown is having to multiply the uses of my kitchen table, that’s ok. But what it has shored up in my mind is the importance to appreciate the relation between space and us. As architect Jeremy Till said, ‘architecture depends’. It is the intersection of engineering and culture, it can be appreciated conceptually, technically, abstractly, but simultaneously, no building is beyond the sociality of the everyday. Architecture is an affect of human relations and connections, and as an effect, architecture enables and platforms human activities and thus relations. Much of the architecture we love and identify as architecture is extraordinary, attention seeking and deserving, but the majority of it just becomes embedded, used, lived, and slots into the unacknowledged parts of our day. This is none more true than The Home. Houses. Something we are experiencing more intensely than ever at the moment.

Written by Open City's Development Manager, Zoë Cave.

Image by Heath Robinson.