The self-evident truth “I am mortal” comes with age. This reference to age is often taken the wrong way, misunderstood – it’s seen as coquetry: “But you’re not old!” or the sign of an obsession. The imperious need to fit the work still to be done into the confines of a ready-made box: the last box. Or rather: because the box is outlined, because there’s no longer any outside box -> the work you plan to put in it = a sort of solemnity = to look the use of Time before Death in the face. 1
To use Barthes shorthand: [A box] + The Time Before Death = life
Where do we live? Is it as Beckett proposes in Ill Seen, Ill Said ‘‘in the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else”? 2 Oh, the rich and deep and complex chambers of the mind! Where we all whiled many an hour during Lockdown. Swinging over this synapse, then that—and nothing to do? No matter, no matter … plenty of grey matter here to chew on. In Beckett’s short prose we follow the mind of a solitary old woman in a cabin as it wanders from past memories to the present moment where she nears death. However, as the short prose develops it is as if her existence, her life, seems to fuse to this cabin, the ‘an inexistent centre of a formless place’.3 This small structure becomes synonymous with the woman; ‘her walls’ becoming her interiority and the lidless eye, the narrator of the tale, her consciousness. The woman’s home is an extimacy; she is expressed outwardly in her surroundings; her mind made manifest, her emotions externalised. This cabin is a home, a place where one lives; this box is a life.4
Stephen Hobbs presents the home, the construction of selfhood, the box—life!—in his exhibition ‘House Arrest in Pink’. A recreation of the bungalow where the artist was confined during lockdown, Hobbs’ installation transforms the gallery space into a ‘home’. Like an uncanny IKEA flat pack, the structure—painted in sickly pinks and adorned with an Irish blessing— unfolds out into the space. The purpose of this simulation is nebulous; footsteps upon the false floor sound lonesome, empty. There is a brief feeling that this floor may not hold you.
Hobbs’ bungalow is created with visual sampling from the publication Bungalow Bliss (1972). The pragmatic architect Jack Fitzsimons’ affordable housing designs of cottages has seen renewed interest since Adrian Duncan’s survey work Little Republics: The Story of Bungalow Bliss (2022) . Fitzsimons’ blueprints became a bestseller and saw bungalows become the new vernacular of Irish life, influencing the Irish landscape, culture and housing market irrevocably. Duncan attests to the cultural significance of Fitzsimon’s work: ‘before this book appeared, the options for housing in rural Ireland were: inheritance, getting on the housing list or emigrating.’5 These bungalows dot the countryside becoming what novelist John McGahern termed ‘tiny republics’. Republic: of the people; of: a part of the whole.
White boxes scattered along the landscape, these bungalows, insular and self-contained, present a traditional ‘salon style’, abstracted approach to space. Brian O’Doherty describes the illusion in his Inside the White Cube essay: ‘Each picture was seen as a self-contained entity, totally isolated from its slum-close neighbour by a heavy frame around and a complete perspective system from within.’ 6 While the rural dispersal of the population ensured there was no ‘slum-close’ neighbour, the bungalows like the pictures in the salon are each seemingly blissfully ignorant of the other and yet become a kind of mosaic once one takes an aerial view. These ‘tiny republics’ were in fact part of a network of houses, a stack of boxes—lives—lived in relation to one another. These ‘republics’ are an illusion of space and a delusion of independence.
Hobbs subverts—or rather dominates—the salon style predecessor, the ‘white cube space’ with his immersive installation. What does it mean to make a space inside a space? In this instance, Hobbs charts out a space with a false floor and makeshift walls that act almost as ‘a Trojan horse’ as they work within and without the gallery space. The idea of infiltration—working within and without—forms a strategy in the provocative essay ‘The Only Task of Architecture’ (2013 by visionary architect Jack Self.
What is certain is that since both actual production and immaterial labour have now been depoliticised, and thus removed from the field of revolution, the housing question has renewed importance. It is only by rewriting the social contract implicit in our housing—its spatial form, financing, procurement and provision—that the possibility of positive dissidence might be restored. The autonomy of domestic architecture from its capitalist matrix is therefore the single most important activity for the architect to tackle. The orchestration of an oversupply of debt-free, inexpensive and good-quality housing is thus the only task of architecture.7
In the essay, Self cites a ‘from within’ approach to remodelling society into a more equitable playing field. His ‘Trojan horse’ is the Cenobium, a subversive ‘black block’ of contemporary architecture that models itself against fast market-driven developments but is possible to be realised from within the current system. The home is a psychological extension of the self, it is a dictator of how we operate socially but housing remains—devastatingly—a component of an economic system that plays with lives day in day out. How do we subvert this? What are contemporary pragmatic approaches to delivering affordable housing?
Amidst the Fitzsimons’ designs, Hobbs’ exhibition includes a welcome figurative graphic of people, perhaps neighbours, stuck beyond the installation’s false wall onto the wall of the gallery. This allusion to humanity, while safely contained within your ‘republic’, is a reminder of the sociability Hal Foster lamented during lockdown; a reminder of the whole we are a part of. Sitting in the four walls of his home, Foster considered that lockdown made our mortality more apparent. (Again To use Barthes shorthand; [A box] + The Time Before Death = life) ‘Maybe’ he writes, ‘a refreshed sense of finitude will prompt us to embrace sociability all the more and redouble our commitment to a future we want right now.’8
Ah, the future … The future is bliss? Perhaps. Perhaps we must determine if the bliss Fitzimon’s was referring to was the bliss of creating one’s own republic or the bliss of affordable housing for all?
1 Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel : Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France, trans. by Kate Briggs, (1978- 1979) (New York : Columbia University Press, 2010) p. 4.
2 Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen, Ill Said (London: John Calder, reprint 1997) p. 20.
3 Ibid, p. 8.
4 Extimacy is a neologism coined by Jacques Lacan to describe one’s intimate and interior self’s relationship to the external.
5 Adrian Duncan, ‘Emigrate or inherit: how Bungalow Bliss revolutionised rural Ireland’s housing options’, Irish Independent, 12 October 2022.
6 Brian O’Doherty, Inside The White Cube: The Ideology of The White Space, Expanded Edition (University of California Press, 2000) p16
7 Jack Self, ‘The Only Task of Architecture’, Architecture Foundation, 2013. <https://leidiniu.archfondas.lt/en/alf-04/jack-self-only-task-architecture> .
8 Hal Foster, ‘Seriality, Sociability, Silence: Hal Foster on art and lockdown, Artforum, December 2020 <https://www.artforum.com/print/202009/hal-foster-84377>.