Revealing Wickedness of Home

This blog post is written by Johan Liekens.

Johan Liekens is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Architecture at KU Leuven, Belgium.

We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the conference presentation by the author.

Revealing Wickedness of Home

On the moist, bare soil within the belly of the Drongenhof Chapel, itself tucked away in one of the city of Ghent’s remnant medieval neighborhoods, a particular interior setting was temporarily grafted. As in George Perec’s interpretation of Antonello Da Messina’s painting Saint Jerome in His Study, that setting as a study inquired and mediated ideas on habitation. This time though such mediation would not merely connect to a spatial inscription in what Perec (1974) has identified as the bare and glacial surroundings constituted by a chapel’s empty belly. On the contrary, and venturing from an architectural perspective, the mediation would reveal aspects of (in-)(co-)habitation in a post-anthropocentric world; an era of climatological emergency wherein New Materialism perspectives encourage an engagement and entanglement with matter conceived as vital and vibrant (Bennet 2010), a parliament of things (Latour 1991), and a multi-species community (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017, 2020) such as the conglomerate matter of the living soil on which the setting rested1. More than mediating home, the setting thus revealed wicked but inherent and fully real aspects of home.

The Wicked Home has been a transdisciplinary academic design office (ADO) set up by Nel Janssens, Rachel Armstrong, Rolf Hughes, Laurens Luyten, Annelies De Smet and myself, running from 2019 until 2022. ADOs at our Faculty2 are conceived as vehicles oriented on contemporary challenges raised to the disciplines of architecture, interior-architecture, and urbanism approaching these through a combination of research-, design-, and educational practices. With ADOs, our Faculty wants to create new formats and possibilities for research outputs in Architecture.

Pairing the seemingly contradictory aspects of home and wickedness, home — (in-)(co-)habitation — in all its complexity has been the recurrent focus of our ADO. While the aspect of wickedness, with etymological ties to the old English Wicca and so to the notion of witchcraft, refers to more daring ways of exploring, we interpret it also as relating to the notion of wicked problems. Problems that are, as the home is, challenges with an irreducible complexity. In our ADO we thus examined the irreducible complexity of forms of home, one aspect of this being the entanglement with more-and-other-than-human matters, actants, and worlds. Six research-by-design master studios have been developed as part of our ADO investigation, all of them having been affected by the pandemic situation, which compelled us to stay home and work in the ADO became thinking from within that home.

S for Soil Times

The setting, which we grafted in and on the Chapel’s soil, and on which we would serve food for thought as well as food for more literal digestion at the occasion of the academic seminar and public event titled Revelations: Wicked Home, drew on an artefact – reforesting and composting cabin – produced as part of a research line titled 26 Toilets to Re-figure Habitation (De Smet et al. 2022). This research line had been set up in the research group Architecture & Wicked Matters. The research line would ultimately assemble as a wicked alphabet, in its set-up inspired by Peter Greenaway’s Inside Rooms: 26 Bathrooms (1985). Venturing from the architectural element toilet, an element that as AMO’s3 publication Elements of Architecture (Koolhaas 2018) has stipulated never founded any architectural treatise; the method would be to counteract that ascertainment through a research-by-design approach, ultimately spawning 26 intertwining architectural artefacts that intend to refigure architecture. The artefact (ab-)used for the setting was S for Soil Times (Figure 1), its name referring to the eponymous chapter in Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care (2017). That chapter calls for involvements with soil and with the soil communities we are inherently but unconsciously part of, explaining also our affiliation with the Chapel’s specific characteristics lacking its original floor tiling and hence opening up its soils.

Drawings of the project 'S for Soil Times': a reforesting and composting tower.
Figure 1: The reforesting and composting tower S for Soil Times, drawing: Johan Liekens.

On route to its ultimate destination —a prairie in the Semois valley— where the artefact will perform as a reforesting and composting cabin, S for Soil Times will travel through and connect to a variety of events and contexts. The ADO ending-event Revelations: Wicked Home served as a first halt. As a design, S for Soil Times substantiated during the recent period of lockdowns, in which one was compelled to stay home. In exile on a prairie close to the Semois river, functioning as an extension to the crammed city life at that time, I spent time scything grass worlds and taking care of soil and trees. Gradually the idea developed to construct a minimal place of sojourn allowing me to stay on the prairie for longer periods. Thinking about what was minimally necessary, the architectural element toilet came to structure the intervention, covering an ultimately concrete and basal need. Beyond function, the idea was to reorient, through the artefact’s agency, the idea of human presence as a burden on the landscape and steer it towards a mutual relationship of caretaking.

Populated by majestic but dying Ash trees, a species typical of streamlet valleys that in the nearby future will become extinct due to a particular sickness, which along globalist movements of building materials spreads across Europe, to me the prairie itself increasingly became a matter of care. My human presence needed to be not one of occupation and burden only but of mutual collaboration and cohabitation with the more-than-human ecology of prairie and valley. A reforesting and composting tower gained shape. In it, two small interior rooms —one containing a dry compost toilet, the other that I call a library of composting mattersare connected by a central passage volume, with doors on each side that fold open onto the landscape. When opened up, passing through that volume visitors or passers-by can traverse the streamlet and reach the other sloping side of the valley. The two interior rooms are sites of soil production. Asides toilet literature such as Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care (2017) and Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016), the so-called library of composting matters will contain maturing night soil from the compost toilet. Becoming soil over time, this matter will be used to nurture newly planted tree seedlings, as part of the planned small reforestation project. Over these two interior rooms, a dim and dancing light will hover, propelled by the rhythm of the irregular flowing streamlet with its own will from which it harvests its energy. In the middle of the tower, when closed, one finds a place to spend the night: one human captured in an unexpected cohabitation with the community of biota vitalizing the composting process. Having large ventilation hatches that mimic typologies of tobacco drying towers typical of the valley, and with a balcony reminiscent of observation towers found close by and allowing for vistas on the dying as well as vital landscape, the reforesting and composting tower blends in in the valley’s ecology.

Figure 2: Mock-up of S for Soil Times on scale 1/1, grafting on the soil of the Drongenhof Chapel, moments before commencing the academic seminar Revelations; Wicked Home.
Figure 2: Mock-up of S for Soil Times on scale 1/1, grafting on the soil of the Drongenhof Chapel, moments before commencing the academic seminar Revelations; Wicked Home. Image: Stijn Bollaert.

Revelations

Figure 3: Image taken during the academic seminar Revelations: Wicked Home. Image: Carl Bourgeois.
Figure 3: Image taken during the academic seminar ‘Revelations: Wicked Home’. Image: Carl Bourgeois.

A mock-up on scale one to one of S for Soil Times was as said ab-used to present the ADO vernissage event Revelations: Wicked Home (Figure 2,3). On its folding doors tilted in a horizontal position, matters as food and more figuratively food for thought and discussion with peers were served in the context of an academic seminar, and later on presented in a broader public event. Around and on the horizontally tilted door-tables Annelies De Smet developed an intriguing performance, first carefully serving fragments of student work produced within the ADO, mingling them with food substances and raising ambiguity between architecture and food by serving edible architectural model elements, which were re-composed on site by one of the ADO students Liese Mortreu. With the architectural element of the toilet nearby, serving food and food for thought on that table was in a wicked but natural proximity with aspects of digesting and composting, tampering with usual and accepted distinctions between proper and improper; between being valuable and waste or dirt. Rolf Hughes and Rachel Armstrong would recite sets of revelations, each of them connecting to an aspect of the ADO, the space we found ourselves in, or the work produced by the students. One of these revelations, Revelation 14:15, advanced the chapel floor’s vital materiality as a biological city that in ongoing circular processes produces soil.

In the space of this blog post only three student projects, which were served, are shortly presented to give an idea of the spectrum of home that was addressed in the ADO.

Figure 4: A drawing from Liese Mortreu’s work Kitchen Stories. Drawing: Liese Mortreu.
Figure 4: A drawing from Liese Mortreu’s work Kitchen Stories. Drawing: Liese Mortreu.

In her design project that ran in the pandemic era of lockdowns and isolation, Liese Mortreu ventured from the identification of the kitchens in the homes of the Anthropocene as isolated clean and capsular entities (Figure 4). Connections to the home’s environment are usually consciously hidden in them, tucking away infrastructures in the home’s periphery, further connecting them to hidden gargantuan collective networks, which weigh on our environment and soils. Many other infrastructures are hidden in the home as well; as the production of food in unknown places connecting to the home only by schemes of global transportation. This conscious hiding of relationships, according to Mortreu, renders the ecological consequences of our everyday choices and practices hard to grasp, and as such obstructs our understanding of their impact. Venturing from her own kitchen in which she found herself isolated during the design work, by drawing, making models, and diving into related literature, a speculative and projective design trajectory was developed. The design trajectory reconsiders those relationships between home/kitchen and environment. Moving away from the concept of the Modern kitchen, she advances the kitchen more as a construction, a system, which (re)relates elements and agents within an expanded landscape. The kitchen becomes advanced as a metabolism that is reconstructed both in its physical, social, and psychological dimensions. A metabolism that is able to create its own space with its own sets of values. In Mortreu’s project, the kitchen is constructed through specific and real acts of food making: purifying the water, making fire from food scraps, making smoked fish, ginger tea, and pickled cucumbers. Intensively observed relationships, choreographies, and movement patterns in and between these acts of food making, as well as the kitchen’s retrofitted and re-related elements such as water, fire, and garden feed new kitchen dialogues. They compose new concentrations as well as conflicts. What really sets the kitchen apart from the Modern idea of kitchen, Mortreu emphasizes, are the values its inhabitants handle, situating these values in social and natural wealth rather than efficiency or economy and manifesting more in the form of authentic relations, as they can only exist in the intimate context of a real home. Through a set of compelling kitchen stories, inspired by the structure of Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, these values reveal themselves in accumulation, expanding as such the realm of kitchen imaginaries. They do so, to give one example, by introducing to that realm also other-and-more-than-human perspectives. Agencies such as that of a cohabitant cat and bird or the living matter of the composting pile of food waste that, as a multispecies community of biota, is cared for and in turn cares for life within the home. This by growing herbs and producing for example small voltages of electricity.  The kitchen as such becomes a speculative and projective platform for a desired ecological change, ecology here referring also to the substantiation of a web of relations, in which small changes in the inhabitant’s everyday practices relate to and resonate with the whole system.

Figure 5: Image from Jade Goossens’ research instrument chair/ladder/pier/pond. Image: Jade Goossens.
Figure 5: Image from Jade Goossens’ research instrument chair/ladder/pier/pond. Image: Jade Goossens.

A second work by Jade Goossens (Figure 5) addressed a similar complexity and wickedness of habitation. Isolated in a home that is part of an industrial compound, embedded in a vast intermediate natural landscape of unplanned trees, plants, grasses, and ponds. From early on in the project, Jade started to devise instruments that endeavor to approach other-and-more-than-human entities with which humans cohabit and collaborate in making home home. She created an unfinished series of interior-architectural artefacts that, due to the lockdown situation, were made from materials found on site. A sofa to embed oneself in the multispecies community of a compost heap; a mixture of ladder and seat allowing her to become acquainted with the biotope of a tree’s crown. Her most compelling instrument though was the chair/ladder/pier assemblage, with a built in bell jar that can provide home for water surface insects, the overall structure allowing her to balance over and into a pond. Seated on this instrument, and carefully moving forward while seeking balance on and with the pond’s vital matter, limits between human and more-than-human become explored as well as stretched, the human feet fusing with the lively matter from the pond, always in risk of completely tipping over into that vital and vibrant, other and yet unknown materiality.

A third work by Laurens Decoster, brought to the table accompanied by the penetrating smell of sea, presented an experiment of producing sets of large concrete pillars, ultimately evolving in the design project towards a pavilion on sea. Laurens’ work ventures from the fact that many of our human-made sea-structures, often executed in heavy and little porous concrete, are structures that fundamentally hamper colonies of marine biological life to settle. Inscribing himself in a multidisciplinary team including marine biologists, Laurens experimented with concrete masses and textures, part of the work also being the leaving to the sea of these structures, the monitoring of them, and as a result of his actions, the entering into conversation with specialists as well as passers-by on what is home and (in-)(co-)habitation in a context of multispecies communities.

Serving to our guests substantial fragments of projects and concepts that had been developed in the ADO, we wrapped up four years of collaborating on The Wicked Home. A matter of serving diverse and deviant senses of home within a home within a home. Senses of home produced by young (interior-)architects, served on the tilted table-doors and within the small interior rooms of S for Soil Times, served itself on the lively soil over which the Drongenhof Chapel seems to hover.

Notes

 [1] These interpretations of matter as being vibrant and having a —political— voice and action potential within congregations of human and non-human “matters” relate to the contemporary currents of New Materialism, Post-Humanism, and Post-Anthropocentrism. These share an understanding of reality that repositions or de-centralizes the human among nonhuman matters beyond traditional humanist boundaries. They all qualify questions of vitality, agency, and generative capability as being appropriate for human and nonhuman matter alike.

[2] The Academic Design Office (ADO) is a vehicle developed at the KU Leuven Faculty of Architecture, Campus Sint-Lucas (BE). Our particular ADO The Wicked Home has been initially formulated from the research group Material Narratives, subgroup Architecture & Wicked Matters, and has been co-run by members of the Regenerative Architecture, Arts & Design research group.

[3] AMO is the research section of the architectural office OMA led by Rem Koolhaas.

References

Bennet, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

De Smet, A., Johan Liekens, Nel Janssens, and Manon Persoone. 2022. “Architecting Twenty-six Toilets to Re-figure Inhabitation: J for Jewel, S for Soil Times, T for Thigmophilia”. In: CA²RE 2: Evaluation of Design-Driven Research, (288-301).

Greenaway, P., 1985. Inside Rooms, 26 bathrooms. London & Oxfordshire (movie).

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Koolhaas, R. and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. 2018. Elements of Architecture. Cologne, Germany: Taschen GmbH.

Latour, Bruno. 1991. We Have Never Been Modern, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Perec, G.. 1974. Espèces d’espaces. Paris: Galilée.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M.. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More-than-human Worlds. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M.. 2020. “Soil Times : The Pace of Ecological Care.” Solitude Journal 1: Collective Care & Response-ability: 98-107.

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