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PETER KING says that houses are not machines, but ‘organisms’ animated by us

I was lying in bed one morning, with no plans other than to roll over. It was too early to get out of bed, and I had nothing to get up early for. As planned, at 7.00am the heating system clicked into life with its distinctive rumble and low hum. Usually, this is a comforting noise, suggesting that things are working as they should. Except that they did not continue to work as they should on this particular morning. The low hum was replaced by a clang as if someone had dropped their tools on the landing, and then a loud bang. There was still a humming but louder and more insistent and with an ominous edge to it. There was also a smell of burning. The heating pump had burnt out after more than 20 years of consistent use. We turned the system off and arranged for an engineer to call to replace the pump, which duly happened the following morning. The repair was straightforward and took barely an hour. However, what had become clear to me was that there were things in our house that we could not control and could not maintain ourselves. There are any number of complex machines in our house that we rely on, that we expect to work reliably and constantly.

Le Corbusier, theorist of the house as machine

Naturally when one considers the idea of machines in this context one’s mind goes to Le Corbusier’s statement that ‘A house is a machine for living in’. This is a notion that I have always found abhorrent, with its emphasis on both uniformity and conformity.

Quite simply, we just do not see our house like that. When we consider the nature of the specific place where we live what stands out is its distinction. It is definitively different from those around it, even if the external appearance is very nearly indistinguishable. We never mistake our neighbour’s house for our own regardless of how similar it might look. A dwelling is always particular to those using it. Its use is always specific and not interchangeable. Our dwelling is not there simply to sustain us – although it must do that – but it acts too as a repository for our life experience and as a store of memory. While on a utilitarian level, any dwelling of a certain level of amenity would suffice, in practice we want something specific and we make it so.

Our dwelling is then a place that contains machines, but it is not a machine itself. We might see it as an assembly of machines, but again it is not merely this. We have to add to this assembly our memories, relationships (past and current), habits, eccentricities, and so on. These are the things that we use our dwelling for. They are the essence of what dwelling is and what the machines are there to serve.

A machine is something that can transmit force. It is powered in some way. But in what way is our house ‘powered’? There is no obvious power source (as opposed to what powers the machines within it). Our house does not move. It appears to be in stasis and as such it might be the very opposite of a machine.

But I want to suggest that dwelling does have a motive power. But it is not a quantifiable one. We can explore this by positing an alternative metaphor, namely that of the organism. We can define an organism in a number of ways. We can see it as a living being, as a distinct thing. But we can also see an organism as a system consisting of interdependent parts. As a living being an organism is contiguous and complete. But it is made up of a number of interdependent elements all with their prescribed function. This makes it sound like a machine, but there is an important difference. Unlike a machine, an organism is something whose motive force comes from within and not without. It is animated from the inside and does not depend on an external power source. So an organism, like a machine, can be seen as a complex or network of things. It too has a material structure with defined parts. But what animates the organism comes from within and is already part of us.

Like the machines in our house some parts of us must be in continuous use. We cannot turn them off and remain a viable being. We can appear to be largely idle, when we are at rest or asleep, but some of our core functions, such as digestion, respiration, heart function, must continue on. These are involuntary, automatic and outside of our conscious control. They operate without our direct involvement. The same applies to our unconscious mind. We cannot control our dreams. We cannot stop them from bursting into our heads, confusing and confounding us, perhaps even in frightening us. There are, so to speak, programs always running in the background, which we cannot control and which we would struggle to inhibit.

It is in this way that we can see our house as an organism, as having a number of systems that appear to work independently and outside of our direct control. It might be argued that we should only take this metaphor so far. Unlike our breathing, we can turn the systems in our house off. We can turn up the heating if we are cold or increase the shower temperature. This is certainly true, and we should be careful in not overusing our metaphors. But we also need to add that, while we can turn machines off or alter their use, we still need them. There is a cost in turning them off and it may be fatal, just as if some of our core bodily functions cease to work. A metaphor need not be exact to be helpful to us.

Where the metaphor is helpful is with relation to the issue of power. What is it that powers an organism? As I have suggested, it is this that differentiates an organism from a machine, and it is this facet that makes the organism a better metaphor for dwelling that the machine.

One way of looking at this issue, is the idea of animation. While a dead body of a loved one looks familiar, it is clear that there is something really significant missing: it is familiar, but it is not the same as the person we knew and loved. In some way the body appears to be empty. There is then something that appears to animate us. This can be seen as a life force that turns us from simple matter to a living being. We might be able to measure this life force, in indirect ways through pulse, brain wave patterns, respiration and so on, but this is not the force itself. It is not what gives us life, what gives us a mind. This is what distinguishes us most from a machine. It is also what distinguishes dwelling from the machine. A dwelling comes alive become it is inhabited by something that appears to give it volition and purpose.

An inanimate object can only do as it is bid. It can either work in the prescribed manner or not at all. It always does the best it can. It can do no other. It has no will and nor is it prone to mood swings and tantrums. It may appear temperamental, but this will be perfectly explicable in mechanical terms. A machine will work until it is turned off or breaks. The inanimate is implacable and cannot be reasoned with. There is no contingency, no variety or diversity in its operation. An object is functionally transparent.

Martin Heidegger, who believed we ‘humanised’ objects by using them

As Martin Heidegger has suggested, what animates the object – what gives it its spirit – is our use of it. In his book, Being and Time, Heidegger refers to the idea of objects as equipment. We turn it from an object to a tool, into something that is not only ours but, for as long as we use it well, part of us. In his famous example Heidegger talks about a carpenter using a hammer. This is an old and now familiar tool, and the carpenter is undertaking an action – hammering in a nail – that he had done countless times with this tool. Heidegger states that the hammer becomes transparent to the carpenter’s consciousness. It, as it were, becomes part of him, an extension of his will. It is, to use Heidegger’s jargon, ready to hand. But were the hammer to break it would become unready to hand and appear to the carpenter as present to hand. In other words, it becomes visible as an entity distinct in itself.

The jargon here may be clumsy – at least in English translation – but what Heidegger points to is that we use objects as extensions of ourselves incorporating them into our motives and aspirations, such that we literally do not notice them. And this is indeed how we act with all those things we use every day. We find we have driven home from the office without really noticing the route we’ve taken, because we do it every day. We don’t focus on the chair we are sitting on while we are eating, and we do not notice the machines working away in the background keeping us warm and providing us with hot water and light.

Indeed, our lives would not be recognisable if we had to focus specifically on every object we were using rather than on our objectives. Much of what we have around us are means – things for us to use – rather than ends. They are present to do a job for us, but in such as manner as not to be noticed. Many of the machines in our house have been devised precisely so we do not have to engage directly with them. They are made to work instead of us, and often to work in a way that is hidden from us. They are programmed to turn on and off and are placed away from us, so we do not have direct and regular contact with them.

In this sense, it might appear that these objects lack meaning in that we do not directly animate them, and certainly it is the case that we relate to them differently. They remain, as it were, strangers to us. However, these machines are in constant use and they perform crucially important tasks such as heating, light and supplying constant hot water (which is why they are preprogramed and automatic). Their meaning is necessarily implicit. They are the necessary background or framework on which our conscious lives depend. When these machines break, like the central heating pump, we are brought up short and made to think about the complexity of dwelling. The object is unready and most definitely present to us.

We can no longer ignore all those things hidden behind doors, walls and kept in inaccessible parts of the dwelling. But just as the heart and lungs are integral to us, so are these machines to our house. That we do not have to think about them is precisely the point. We are dependent on them, but this dependency does not have to made explicit. They remain tools just as much as those objects we active pick up. We use them and this use makes them opaque.

A machine can only be animated by our use of it. This is not to give it life as such, but to share our life with it, to make it part of it for as long as we need it, and it works as we wish it to. We take the machine and use it – and only this gives it meaning.