We have to re-evaluate the relationship with our homes

A conversation between Oona Horx-Strathern and Mateo Kries

Our living environments have always been subject to change. Factors such as sustainability, scarcity of urban living space and intergenerational shifts will continue to shape our lifestyles in the coming years. Vienna-based trend expert and futurist Oona Horx-Strathern delves into the underlying aspects of these issues. In her annual Home Report, she shares her assessment of the critical changes currently underway, from the home office and the role of technology to the transformations we can expect to see in our cities.

Horx-Strathern’s own house is a testing ground for new modes of living. In 2010, she built the ‘Future Evolution House’ for her family on the outskirts of Vienna. Contrary to what many would expect, the house is not a technological experiment full of digital gadgets, but instead is based on ‘mindful living’, on the connection between human and nature. Mateo Kries, Director of the Vitra Design Museums, talked with her about the impact of the pandemic, working from the laundry room, and the physical sensation of switching on the water kettle.

Mateo Kries: As a futurist and trend forecaster, how do you gather insights about the future of home living?

Oona Horx-Strathern: I’ve been working with trends for over 25 years now, which makes me feel really old (laughs). My research is an evolving process that combines statistical work and facts about how we currently live, with cultural scanning and looking at the things happening around us.

Did you design your home, the ‘Future Evolution House’ in Vienna, as part of your research?

We wanted to use our knowledge of societal change, adapting our house to what we were seeing in our research. We thought it would be so easy, but were quite surprised to find how much we had to think about. For instance, we felt quite a lot of pressure to build what they call a ‘smart house’. But what is technologically smart isn’t necessarily smart from a social vantage point.

So how do you see the role of technology at home?

We looked at all available technologies and thought about what we needed from a space. We discovered that not everything that was seen as ‘the future’ at the time was actually useful. I believe it’s because what we need is not smart, technological solutions or connectivity with machines. Basically we need connectivity to other people. For a while we used Alexa and similar devices, but they were quickly moved to the cellar.

Do you have an idea why many gadgets have a short lifespan?

A lot of these devices break up the natural human connections we intrinsically crave – we call this phenomenon ‘technoference’. It’s nice that you can switch the kettle on while you’re still in bed, but you can also just as easily ask the person in the kitchen or do it yourself. We don’t want to become a concierge, making everything work by pressing a button. This will never replace the physical sensation of doing it yourself. We need these small human acts, or rituals, to counter the effects of digitalisation.

Many believe the current global pandemic will affect the way we live.

A lot of the trends we’re seeing now were already underway before the pandemic hit. The sudden change did affect the way we filter those new tendencies, and how we will adapt to them. We’ve become more flexible in how we communicate and in what we want our homes to look like. The philosopher Gershom Scholem calls this kind of situation a ‘plastic hour’, referring to the state of flux. It’s a time to make changes, as there is suddenly ‘plasticity’ or moveability in our society. In order to change things you have to act, and times of crisis create the momentum.

What changes do you think are particularly important?

A lot of us didn’t have the time or energy to give the home the attention it needed. As we have to spend a lot more time there at the moment, we are forced to think about how we live. We have to re-evaluate the relationship with our homes. Before, working and living happened in separate spheres. Now, the home office is an important factor when you’re planning a home. I like to call mine the ‘Hoffice’, not only because it’s shorter, but also because it sounds a bit like the German word for hope, and I do hope we’ll also see positive changes emerging from this crisis.

How were you affected personally?

When the lockdown happened, suddenly there were six of us at home instead of the usual two. That in itself is a big change. At the start, there was even a sort of Darwinian fighting: Who gets the best seat at the table, who ends up in the nicest office space…? One day I actually found myself working from our laundry room, because it was the quietest place! (laughs)

But a lot of people also felt trapped in their homes…

Differentiating your spaces according to function can really help set boundaries, literally and figuratively. We’ve had a long tendency to work in open spaces where everything blends together and a single space serves different functions. Our kitchens, for example, had to fulfil many functions: cooking space, workspace, play area, cosy place to sit…. We’re now learning that this is just too much for one space. Kind of ironically, the more time we spend at home, the more we feel the need to differentiate our rooms again as separate spaces with clear, distinct functions.

I can tell from my own experience that it absolutely makes sense. The idea of blending functions in open spaces, which was also prevalent in modernist architecture, can become very troublesome when everyone’s at home at the same time, all the time – which is a situation we hadn’t encountered in the past 100 years. In your ‘Home Reports’, you also mention the tendency towards intergenerational living. Not only the core family – parents and children – but different generations sharing living space.

We’re living longer than ever, so we will have more older people. The generation that is growing old now, the baby boomers, have very different demands and tastes than their parents, and they have a much better relationship with their children, and younger generations in general. The connection is much more open, more fluid, which makes it easier to experiment with cohabitation. Our individualistic society has a lot of younger people and seniors living alone, so why not bring them together?

And how would this work in real life?

We’ve seen quite a few nice examples in the last years. In Sweden, for instance, there’s an initiative where only people under 25 and over 70 live in the same apartment block. The contract stipulates that all inhabitants have to spend a certain amount of time doing communal activities, and it has been an incredibly successful project. People learn from each other, experience things together, and there is no talk of a generation gap whatsoever. Something good that has come out of this pandemic is that we’ve learned to speak more openly about loneliness. The topic was taboo for a long time, and we’re starting to find new ways to deal with it. This will have a big effect on our social and mental health.

And what about the cities? Do you think the city will survive this crisis?

At first glance, we’ve been observing a desire to escape the city – especially during the pandemic, but even before. Working from home has made it easier to live further out, saving commuting time. To keep the city attractive as a place to live, it will need a major ‘greenification’. The office towers that have become superfluous can be transformed into green areas with a mix between living and public space. We’re seeing some examples of how it could work. Vancouver, for example, has declared itself a ‘five-minute city’ – meaning that every resident should be able to reach a green space where they can sit and relax within five minutes of walking. The mayor of Frederiksberg near Copenhagen has said he wants every citizen to be able to see a tree from the window. If you want people to stay in the city, you need that kind of energy.

As you said, the pandemic makes us question how our homes are designed. Have you already noticed a specific impact?

I’ve heard that cooking is the new commuting (laughs). It offers a break between work and private life, and the time that is saved by not having to commute is now often spent in the kitchen. Where before the kitchen had become a status symbol, something to show off to your guests, it is now much more about personal sensibility. The kitchen is where the family gathers; it keeps us nourished physically and mentally. The bathroom has also seen an interesting evolution. It went from a sterile space to a wellness area, with a few avocado-coloured exceptions in the Sixties. The pandemic has pushed us beyond that, making way for what we call a ‘selfness’ space. It has become a space to relax, to get a break from everything. Bathrooms are becoming variants of the sitting room, a bit like the old French idea of a boudoir, with a comfortable, warm atmosphere. In general, you need to create spaces where you can find peace or energy, depending on what you need at a certain moment.

Publication date: 22.4.2021
Images: © Oona Horx-Strathern, www.strathern.eu, photo: Klaus Vyhnalek, www.vyhnalek.com; Matthias Horx, Trend- und Zukunftsforscher, www.zukunftsinstitut.de, photo: Klaus Vyhnalek;

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