Elements of Domestication

A Seminar with James Westcott
Editor, Elements of Architecture (Taschen, 2018)
organized by the ‘City/Architecture’ PhD Programme

Wednesday, November 21, 6.30 pm
37 Bedford Square, First Floor

“a major modification of the human organism, namely its ability to pay attention, occurred when a major cultural innovation, domestication, was adopted. … the house … should be viewed as a technical and cognitive instrument, a tool for thought as well as a technology of shelter.”
— Peter J. Wilson, The Domestication of the Human Species (Yale, 1988).

This evening seminar takes Elements of Architecture, a new book by Rem Koolhaas and edited by James Westcott and Stephan Petermann, as a launch pad for a consideration of architecture as a subtle, millennia-long program of domestication. The book, developed over six years with students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and an array of contributors from industry and academia, amounts to a 2,600-page encyclopedia (or paranoiac’s scrapbook) looking at the lost histories of architecture’s most humble but essential elements: floor, wall, ceiling, roof, door, window, facade, balcony, corridor, fireplace, toilet, stair, escalator, elevator, ramp.

Focusing on the mundane, microscopic ingredients of architecture and steadfastly ignoring the sum of their parts turns out to be an efficient revelation of the house – per Wilson – as primarily a driver of behavior, rather than a rational program of shelter. Courtesy of the elements, architecture does something to us, rather than just for us: evolving us into homo domesticus. The seminar will explore how the functional components of the house accrue outsize psychic and symbolic clout while constantly developing technologically and aesthetically as a solution to the bedeviling problems that come along with living in enclosed worlds.

When our species domesticated itself – started living in permanent dwellings rather than temporary encampments – architecture remade our sensory world in a revolution never seen before or since. In Wilson’s study of what we did to ourselves, he argues that domestication cut off our visual horizon, focusing our attention on small, bounded spaces, particular tasks, and particular people at the expense of others, triggering new social burdens as well as possibilities for “creating and expanding.” Architecture was a deeply mysterious, all consuming pursuit, Wilson says, which completely reconfigured our species and society “[w]ithout people necessarily knowing what has happened.”

The seminar looks at a few elements from their emergence in the Neolithic to their recruitment by the Internet of Things. Whereas elements formerly emanated centuries of knowledge, the house today is becoming hell-bent on gathering data from its inhabitants, simultaneously expanding their domesticated comfort and their obligations to a global economic system.