Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,
In the complex world we live in today, our political educators are under far more pressure than they ever were before to reflect on, make transparent, and to clearly identify their goals, methods, key issues, and theories. What issues, what topics are important for democracy? What specifically makes an object political? What attitudes do we take towards it?
The “object” we are looking at today is a household trade fair. But it’s not a trade fair that wants to serve as an industrial fair or platform for technological exhibits. It’s a forum for reflecting on various household practices. What’s on exhibit are the interim results of the experimental works of academics, scientists, artists, and designers. All of these people worked–or are still working–within the context of the key question: “How can we live healthy and economical lives tomorrow?”
The political philosopher, Hanna Arendt, addressed one of the aspects of this topic in her main work, “Vita Activa”. The American title, “The Human Condition”, comes very close to our current subject: Her book is about the human condition, about being born, about living and dying–and about working, producing, and acting.
People have to work in order to keep themselves alive. What they produce, they consume, they use up. What is being produced is not being used up, it’s being used. The purpose of production, in a philosophical sense, is to create a world of objects that outlast the individual and that enable the individual to establish a relationship with it. A house in the sense of a home is the object of such a relationship. “To be at home”, “to come home”, describes a powerfully intensive relationship to the produced object. According to Hannah Arendt, this is also about constancy in a constantly changing world.
Working and producing belonged in ancient times to the so-called oikos, the sphere of the household. According to Aristotle, the oikos was a private and not a public sphere. The public sphere, the polis, is the place of public activity. More precisely: The agora, the marketplace of the polis, is the place of public activity. It’s the place where human beings can display their public activities. It’s the place for political communication and for making things happen. The agora gives the freemen among equals, the citizens of the polis–not women or slaves–the opportunity to live a vita activa. Most of us don’t remember all that much from our school years. But I’m pretty sure that most of us remember Aristotle’s central proposition: The human being is a “zoon politicon” [a social and political being] who manifests himself/herself through his/her public actions.
So what’s the purpose of this foray into political theory? What am I trying to say? If I wanted to make things easy for myself, I’d just close my folder and say: the household as a private sphere is not a topic for political discussions dealing with democracy and the public sphere. Like Aristotle, I would challenge Plato, who saw the oikos as a smaller form of the polis, and the polis as a larger projection of the oikos. But it’s not that simple. However, the distinction made can be used to help us order our thoughts, to differentiate, and to ask ourselves where the private sphere ends and the interests of the public begin. Where politics is called on to contribute to the shaping of things, and where its clearly defined boundaries are. Or let’s say at least where they should be. Let’s sort the topics out one by one and then work through them.
How can we live healthy lives in the future? That’s a question that individuals in their households can ask themselves. By the 1920s at the latest, art and design had become an issue, which is also what prompted this conference. The household in its historical dimensions is an interesting topic for the Stiftung Bauhaus. It provides a good opportunity to discuss the history of design against the background of such an extremely complex and multi-dimensional topic as the household. In many ways the questions we’re asking today about households are the very same that were being asked a hundred years ago. But what’s changed radically are the contexts–the social, political, economical, and ecological contexts–in which households now find themselves. In the households of the so-called mass societies of the 21st century, it’s no longer possible to view such things as clothing, food, water and energy supplies, household products, household budgets, gender and family relations, cultural and aesthetic practices separate from production conditions or from the political, social, economic, and ecological determinants. Strictly speaking–this wasn’t possible in the industrial societies of the early 20th century either. Just like then, what we are dealing with today are the various political dimensions of households. Our topic is change; our topic is radical transformation.
For example, Doris Day drops a piece of cake on the floor, and a flap opens up and a little vacuum robot with a sucking hose, reminiscent of an elephant, goes to work on its own initiative. Doris Day plays the role of the astounded admirer of the fully automated kitchen. Her film partner, in this case the extremely cool Rod Taylor, is the author and scenographer of the entire performance. The housewife and the kitchen come to loggerheads on several occasions during the course of the film. But the message is nevertheless clear: technology is fantastic, the housewife is rescued from the drudgery of housework and can do her housework in a chic new outfit, gender roles are clearly defined, and the future is going to be even more fantastic.
I assume–although I’m not all that informed about this–that things such as rationality, functionality, and space, the ideas of optimizing kitchen and cooking processes, or hygiene, things that architects and kitchen designers must keep in mind when designing kitchens, have changed only marginally in the last hundred years. There are probably theories about this that I’m also not aware of. What is the best height for the lower cupboards in the kitchen? Is it better to position the taps on the left, the right, or in the middle behind the sink? Which counter surfaces are hygienically suitable and which ones are durable? How is the best ventilation attained?
The kitchens of the Dessau Masters’ Houses were a part of a new living concept that reflected the the overcoming of the economic scarcity after the first world war. They too make very clear the connection between fundamental political, social, and economic conditions and the private sphere. Unlike the country kitchens of farming families, which were also extended families, the kitchens of the Dessau Masters’ Houses reflect the fact that less was required of a kitchen at the beginning of the era of global food chains, industrialized agriculture, and food production. They’re equipped with what were the latest household devices at that time, and they reflect a society that no longer has to perform the arduous reproduction work of earlier times within their own four walls. Gropuis wanted to create visions. Just think about his walk-in closets or his so-called “hot water soda showers”. He was able to envisage that what looked like luxurious and futuristic fantasies, would later become the norm. Daily family life was influenced by the reform spirit of the 1920s. The Dessau Masters’ Houses were built at a time of radical change, at a time of accelerated social and technological change. Is our situation today the same as then? Should we compare them at all? What good does it do us? We’re here today to take a closer look at the “old” concepts of transformation. And to question the new forms of radical transformation that we are experiencing today.
Many academics consider it wrong to view what we perceive as indications of globalization in the last 25 years as a form of radical transformation. They see globalization as a successive process that’s been going on for at least a hundred years. They couple this to a large number of indicators, such as the continuous expansion of world trade. This is certainly something to consider. But what’s also clear is that with the digital developments that have taken place in this time period, we have to admit that an enormous transformation has taken place. Added to this is the interdependency of the markets–including the financial markets, the intensification of transportation, the constantly changing conditions for global food production, the growing global population, increasing migration, climate change ... I can’t rattle off anything here that you aren’t already hearing in the media on a daily basis. There are two aspects, however, that I would like to emphasize: The new relevance of the old motto that “The private sphere is political!” and the question of transparency.
Feminists shifted the focus to the fact that in the oikos women and slaves were not free at all and that the household profited from and was dependent on the unpaid exploration of their labour. Some feminists have also pointed to the fact that capitalist societies are as dependent on the exploitation of natural resources and cheap labour of the global south as they depend on the unpaid care and work of house wives, and, increasingly, on the cheap work of migrant nannies, housekeepers, cleaning women and elderly care nurses.
The slogan not only contains the notion that individuals, their patterns of thinking and behaving, and their practices are socially determined. It also wanted to make clear that issues that at that time were allocated–also by operation of law–to the private sphere, were political issues and were issues to be treated politically. For example: until 1973 a husband in West Germany could prohibit his wife to have a job when he was of the opinion that this would make her neglect her household and marital duties.
Applied to our topic – the household in the 21st century – it seems logical to reactivate this old proposition. But actually, we’d have to turn it around today: The political sphere has become the private sphere! There are fewer and fewer ways of avoiding this. Freedom from political and economic intervention is nearly impossible to realize. What stance should we take on this?
The enthusiasm that reigned since the 1920s–where we thought that technological progress was going to solve many of mankind’s problems–has given way to a deep sense of disillusionment. Politics today needs new stimuli and new idea-suppliers more than it ever has. Who could this be? I’d suggest that we start with the artists first. Then we should try an approach that is more interdisciplinary than it has been before.
The second aspect I would like to emphasise involves the issue of transparency. Few families today ask themselves where the food comes from that’s on their plates. Is it healthy or full of chemicals? Does the “eco” seal really mean anything? How many resources were used for the production? From how far away has the food been transported? More and more people are asking the same questions about their clothing. Does “expensive” also mean “unobjectionable” when it comes to harmful substances and production conditions? There’s no doubt that for a large number of people in our society price plays an important role when they are purchasing products. But many of them would consume differently if the facts were put clearly on the table: This running shoe was produced by young children under the most harmful conditions. Who would buy it if there was a sticker on the packaging with this information on it? This potato was genetically manipulated and grown in synthetic soil and has been sprayed numerous times with chemical poison. Who wants to eat that? What we really need is a much higher degree of transparency and clarity about the things we have in our lives. People want to be capable of taking action again. In this area, all citizens are needed. Responsible politics are needed too.
Coming back to the beginning: I suggested that there are areas that should be out-of-bounds for politics. Aristotle’s distinction between oikos and polis is deeply embedded in our thinking and in the legal systems of the western democracies and the United Nations. The fundamental rights of the German constitution and the Geneva Conventions are protectionary rights. But we obey unwritten laws as well. People have a right to bodily integrity. The private sphere has to be protected against arbitrary encroachments. And it doesn’t require any special explanation to understand that the state has no unconditional right to spy on our private spheres or to tap private conversations.
But whether or not a boundary has been overstepped is also a matter of subjective perception. And boundaries are something that have to be newly defined by each generation in each society. It may well be that the ideal notion of the private sphere that is anchored in our heads is a notion that needs to be reconsidered.
What’s important in my opinion is that the society makes clear distinctions and sets up clear boundaries: Which issues should be dealt with by politics? For our topic, such things as sustainability, the quality of food, affordable housing, social services, and safety are important issues. These are also regulatory issues at the macro-levels of the economy and financial markets, global trade, agriculture, energy production, environmental protection, and developments in the area of medicine. Issues of old age security, welfare services, social security, and medical services. But politics are also responsible for setting boundaries for the protection of individuals and their relations from unlawful encroachments by the state or the law. It has to provide spheres of protection in which critical attitudes can be formed.
So now which areas should remain out-of-bounds for the actions of the political stakeholders? This is an ongoing heavy debate between the society and politics. Should stay-home mothers receive financial support for caring for their children under three years of age, or does this create social disadvantages for the child and ruin his/her way to a successful education from the outset? Should Brussels decide which light bulbs we’re allowed to use at home and which ones we aren’t? Public reaction to the negotiations surrounding the free trade agreement TTIP shows just what fears people are plagued by regarding the regulating of culture, consuming, and food. What’s greeted with more positive acceptance on the other hand is the idea of cars that drive themselves or monitoring devices in the homes of the elderly to protect them from hurting themselves.
These examples clearly show that politics has to be made more accessible. More accessible for criticism, and more accessible for intervention. Easier ways than those we have now have to be found to enable citizens to draw boundaries in a political system that is so expansive. But ways also have to be found to allow a retreat into a real private sphere, at least partially.
In closing, I’d like to come back to the household, the home, the architecture. Why is it important to talk about architecture when we talk about the household and the world? What can the Dessau Masters’ Houses tell us today about this topic? In this context, I’d like to come back to the proposition I put forth earlier: The idea that the notion of the private sphere that’s anchored in the heads of many people–which is closely linked to the home, the household, the family–may need to be reconsidered. In 1930 Gropius said that “...architecture has not exhausted its raison d'etre, unless we consider our emotional needs for harmonious space, for melodious sounds and for room to move, that first bring the space to life, as the purpose of reaching a higher order.” Of course he also had the fulfilling of a purpose in mind. The designing of a space in terms of its functions–sleeping, eating, living, bathing, cooking, etc.–was also important at that time. The representation of social desires, the house as the embodiment of the social status of the owner, as a medium for the social self-presentation of the owner per se–these were certainly of lesser importance within the context of the Dessau Masters’ Houses and the ideas associated with them. What was being sought after were architectural and aesthetic solutions for the needs of a new society that wanted to radically distinguish itself from the class society of the German Empire. No analytical approach can ignore the social-status aspect of the house–which in our society is one of the most powerful driving forces behind buying and designing housing. The private house also provides an opportunity to show off and to conceal at the same time–a characteristic that it shares with the emblematic buildings of the state. When choosing a house, the owner chooses what Münkler describes as a certain “visualization option”, which allows for certain aspects to be visible and others private. The symbolic potential of architecture lies in allowing citizens and the state to search in equal measure for a building that affords each in its own way the opportunity to optimize the presentation of themselves.
In his book “The housing complex. Why we need new houses” author Niklas Maak contemplates this bad state of affairs in connection with people’s lack of freedom in terms of their lifestyles, which are narrowly fixated on owning a home that is barely affordable. He used the Japanese model to demonstrate a new concept of the private sphere. A way of living that envisions urban living situations that are influenced by such variables as being single or changing phases of life. There are private spaces, but most of all there are socially shared spaces as well, which can be adapted to the individual’s changing phases of life. What is imaginable for example are private sleeping and living areas, private bathrooms and secluded balconies, but communally shared kitchens, terraces, and dining rooms. The topic doesn’t concern the detailed pros and cons of the individual suggestions. But what is certain is that the topic of the household of the future cannot ignore the aspects of aesthetics and architecture. Just as the Dessau Masters’ Houses in the 1920s provided the inspiration for reform and educational programmes–which were here to stay despite the short lifespan of the Bauhaus movement–so can art, architecture, and design provide the inspiration for social change today. The radical transformations our world is undergoing today are no less radical than they were a hundred years ago. It would be truly awesome if we could counter the global problems we are faced with today with a vision that makes it possible to live in the way envisioned by the Masters–even under the different conditions today.
Let’s be the ones to provide the inspiration for today and tomorrow!
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