Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Three

“Architecture and Social Questions,” pages 38-48

Buildings possess practical utility, but also can be used to impress upon the world the grandeur of a religion, or a king, or a city. The dwellings of the poor tend to ignore aesthetic or political messages in favor of serving their utilitarian purposes. Commercial buildings took on an aesthetic edge in the Middle Ages, with Venice the exemplar of beautiful public buildings and exquisite dwellings for the merchant titans, while the poor carefully were hidden from view.

The religious monasteries and abbeys of the Middle Ages combined elaborate and beautiful communal areas with Spartan individual accommodations – and their wonders still can be glimpsed at Oxford and Cambridge. The French and English aristocracy aped the Italian fashions, and could build country houses once domestic security did not require fortifications. The credibility of this security was undermined by the French Revolution, “and since that time the traditional styles of architecture have lost their vitality [p. 40].”

Nineteenth century architecture is marked by large factories and small homes arranged in rows for workers. Large buildings make commercial sense for offices or apartments in crowded cities, but their inhabitants tend not to form a medieval-type commune; rather, they prefer to be as separate as possible, despite the close quarters. Buildings for work or business serve as the sole non-domestic centers of social life. “If the social ideals of an age are to be judged by the aesthetic quality of its architecture, the last hundred years represent the lowest point yet reached by humanity [pages 40-41].”

Economic production now is conducted among large groups of people, but we have become more individualized, more isolated, in the rest of our lives. Housework and child care take place by wives on a house-by-house basis, which renders the work dull and makes women captives within their homes. But women seem to prefer the individual home to anything more communal. It might reflect their lack of opportunities in the broader economy: as they are forced to be housewives, they need an individual house to oversee. The system also plays to the interest of husbands in seeming to be important, and a decrepit social life keeps spouses out of harm’s way from potentially dangerous liaisons.

The availability of more work outside the home for women would stoke the demand for outsourced or communal cooking and childcare. It is too difficult to work normally outside the home while maintaining the standard household duties that fall to wives. (Men who take on the household duties would soon understand this.) Architecture could shift in ways to ease the socialization of much of the housework burden; indeed, the architectural shift might have to precede the rationalization of housework.

That each working family dwells in a single family home or tenement has far-reaching effects. The children do not get enough outside exercise, and poorly educated, overworked moms are unable to provide nutritious meals. [Russell is quite the proponent of youthful exposure to the great outdoors.] The children, condemned to the indoors and thus lacking an appropriate environment for their natural vivacity, harry and exasperate their mom. The mom has no leisure, and performs rather poorly those myriad chores for which she is untrained. Mothers are tired, and can take little pleasure in their children’s company. The result of this common arrangement is that children end up “rickety, neurotic, and subdued,” while the moms become “irritable, narrow-minded, and full of envy [p. 43].” The dad then reacts badly to the whole situation, blaming his family instead of the fundamental factor, the architecture.

The fact that through extraordinary self-control and wisdom some families can avoid acting out this depressing vignette is not evidence that the tendency is any less real or malevolent.

[Russell goes on to describe his vision for an architecturally sound communal life, a’ la Fourier’s Phalanstère or, given the shared high-rise construction, the Unité d'Habitation of Le Corbusier.  Architecture is almost a panacea for domestic woes and childhood unhappiness, a jaded reading might suggest –  RBR.]

Clear out the old tenements and small single-family dwellings, and replace them with high rises. The buildings would form a block, with a courtyard quadrangle in the middle. The southern-facing building would not be so high, to allow in more sunlight. The children’s area should be free of things that could harm children or objects that they could harm, to minimize the use of “don’t!” The children would mainly play outdoors, and even their standard indoor area would be open to the elements on one side. Children would take all their meals in the nursery, which could ensure the nutritional value of the food. From a young age, children would spend all day at the nursery school, with minimal supervision. These arrangements would conduce to the children’s better health and character. They would be nearly free-range children, and develop muscularity naturally, like animals do, given their liberation from the ban on motion that is requisite in standard adult settings.

Mothers would benefit, too, by being able to outsource childcare to specialists following weaning. Their days would be like their husbands', with work and with leisure, not just one long slog through cooking, cleaning, and babysitting. Their morning and evening times with their children would be joyous, not trying; mothers would have the energy to play with their children, and the children would appreciate more fully their parents’ affections.

“What is good in family life would survive, without what is worrying and destructive of affection [p. 45].” Though Robert Owen was ridiculed for his parallelograms, his ideas for nursery schools were a success in both theory and, at New Lanark, in practice. Owen was mistaken, however, in attempting to make New Lanark both a residential and an industrial community. The overemphasis on production (as opposed to consumption and quality of life) that has accompanied the Industrial Revolution results in an extensive division of labor in factories, but almost no specialization within households, where mothers do everything. The lack of a profit motive in home life leads to irrational household arrangements.

Workers, currently devoted to their private dwellings, might find my [Russell’s] architectural reforms to be a hard sell. But there will still be a good deal of privacy, even if cooking becomes communal. As women increasingly enter the world of work, current feminist views on the desirability of private cooking and in-home child care may change. Men are less likely to recognize the need for any change in the life circumstances of their wives.

Socialism might be necessary to reduce unemployment, which itself might be necessary to allow women to enter the paid labor force in large numbers. Socialism will also be necessary for my architectural reforms, because they are not driven by the profit motive. The chase for profits produces many wonderful things, but it is not conducive to soothing the nerves of wives, promoting the health and character of children, or beautifying suburbs. The unaesthetic nature of the suburbs is not foreordained, however, any more than poverty is: they both result from our excessive devotion to the idol of profit.