SAFE AS HOUSES: THE MORE-THAN-HUMAN HOME by Rachel Armstrong examines the notion of the home in the context of the pandemic and lockdown, relating domestic architecture to environmental concerns, and looking at how we live with viruses and bacteria, highlighting the need to take microbes into account in future built environments.
In this blogpost, we are giving a sneak peek into this fascinating book, with an extract from the Preface...
Drawing by Matthew Sharman-Hayles. Taken from Safe As Houses, 2022.
Our world has always been microbial, but we lacked the ability to see it. First, until the invention of the microscope, we could not perceive the tiny cells all around us that made the soil fertile and air breathable. Next, we could not see the benefits of microbes on account of comparatively few species identified that invaded our bodies, treating them as easily plundered, hot organic ecosystems, causing infectious disease. Then, we could not see the microbial composition of our skin, guts and flesh on account of our anthropocentrism, regarding them as contaminants. Finally, we could not see the impact of our plundering of wildernesses and animal welfare abuses on stable microbial ecosystems until they shattered our economic systems via the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our inability to ‘see’ ourselves in a microbial world is not about optics and stimulus, but the receptivity we have to the irreducibly complex, dynamic materiality that makes up our unique life-bearing planet. In contrast to the tactile reflexivity of microbes, we invent many layers of meaning which transform us into beings capable of complex thought and decision-making. Confronting us with the best and worst of ourselves, the coronavirus pandemic presents us with stark choices going forward.
In the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix, the main character, Neo, is offered the option of a blue and red pill. Should he select the red pill, then he will have to learn a potentially devastating truth, but if he takes the blue pill then he can return to comfortable ignorance. The choice that architecture, design and indeed, all humanity, face now that the world of microbes has been revealed is whether the ‘matrix’ of anthropocentrism that positions us at the heart of all meaningful action, is a reality we should continue, or not.
If we choose the blue pill, we can regard the coronavirus as an inconvenience from which we recover and return to the ecocidal practices that characterise human development. After all, we have filtered out microbes from our worldview up until this point and can successfully do so again. Further pandemic outbreaks will be regarded as mere disruptions to our baseline normality. We can hold this anthropocentric path until the underlying reality of climate emergency breaks through and combined with the disorder in the fabric of the living realm, this version of the world is torn asunder.
If we take the red pill, we will acknowledge our interdependency with the microbial realm and appreciate their capacity to ‘make’ the world through their potent, persistent, life-promoting metabolic reactions. With massive implications for anthropocentrism, notions of human identity and how we must begin to (re)imagine the nature of human development, the appreciation of an always-already microbial realm requires us to undergo incredible change, thinking beyond our immediate needs into a reality that we really don’t yet understand.
For the blue pill takers, consumptive design practices continue as usual with an occasional speech about sustainable innovation. The machines-à-habiter and their industrial kin continue to consume and pollute the world, albeit more politely than before. For you, this book is a work of science fiction, an invented world that offers a cautionary academic tale but is an unlikely reality.
This book is for the red pill takers. Now that Pandora’s Box is open, inside you will find questions, proposals and case studies that should not only provoke thought, concern and even consternation, but, ultimately, invite action.
Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Regenerative Architecture at the Department of Architecture, Campus Sent-Lucas, Ghent/Brussels, KU Leuven. She is a Rising Waters II Fellow with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (2016), Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and a 2010 Senior TED Fellow. She is Director and founder of the Experimental Architecture Group (EAG) and a member of Regenerative Arts And Design (RAAD) at KU Leuven.