Ergotectonics: the Multi-identity/Multi-task Environment

June 10, 2015


“Ergotectonics: the Multi-identity/Multi-task Environment,” in Inside Space: Experiments in Redefining Rooms, (Cambridge: MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2001) pp6-15

Today, homes provide shelter not only for nuclear families but also for single parents, same-sex couples, bachelors and roommates. At the same time telecommunications—computers, FAX’s, cell phones– have decentralized the workplace and ushered in new economies that have made working at home a viable option. While we pay lip-service to each of these social and technological issues separately, we tend to forget that they are inter-related and mutually reinforcing cultural developments with significant architectural ramifications.  In short, homes have become multi-identity, multi-task environments. Over the course of a single day, not only are men and women alike called on assume a variety of domestic and professional roles — as partners, parents, and wage-earners–they are often required to do so in the same domestic space.

But architecture lags far behind these rapid social developments. Why do we at the start of a new millennium consent to occupy dwellings designed to meet the living requirements of households depicted in 1960’s sitcoms?  While contemporary architects often complain that developers build new houses masquerading as old ones, even more troubling is the gap between layout and lifestyle. Perpetuating mid-century domestic ideals whose origins date back to the 19th century, ordinary developer plans subtly but powerfully prescribe obsolete hierarchical gender relationships and Puritanical ideas about propriety. 1 Built with the presumption that they will be occupied by nuclear families, these formulaic dwellings isolate people and functions by rigidly separating public spaces (living and dining rooms) from private spaces (bedrooms and bathrooms). Reproducing an outmoded division between work and leisure, the designers of these formulaic seem unaware that people other than housewives increasingly work at home. When the conflation between public and private space is acknowledged, designers assume that the traditional house need only be subtly adapted to accommodate the new media technologies that make a house an office. Thus, we are expected to rely on stores like IKEA, where we can purchase equipment and accessories like desks and computer carts, to retrofit freshly built dens and second bedrooms into do-it-yourself home offices.

Contrary to expectation, this outmoded way of thinking about the contemporary domestic program also informs custom-designed homes based on Modernist residential planning principles. Despite the promise of the “free plan,” Modern masters like Mies van de Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright accepted and reproduced the normative social conventions already inscribed in the conventional bourgeois house, segregating private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms as well as service areas like kitchens and servants quarters into separate wings. Moreover, with the exception of artists studios, residential working quarters are few and far between in modern architecture. Modern architects transferred their obsession with functional differentiation from micro to macro, drafting urban plans that cordon off residential from commercial zones.

Despite their predilection for functional differentiation, Modern architects did employ open plans in places where they would meet with little social resistance, reserving spatial continuity and visual transparency for public living areas. This legacy persists today, not only in high-end homes designed by architects but also in the “Great Rooms” recently introduced into developer housing that allow overlapping activities like living and dining to share common floor areas. Yet, then as now, even when related functions are allowed to co-exist in the same space, furniture assumes the responsibility that walls and partitions once did, fixing spatial identities through furniture groupings. Living and dining “areas” replace formal living and dining “rooms.”

But today, as the boundaries between masculine and feminine, living and working, and public and private space become more porous, homes can no longer afford to function as single-family, single-purpose environments. Instead dwellings have become miniature worlds that although limited in scale, are hooked into vast global networks. And as dwellings become stages that facilitate a diverse range of human performances, they must come well equipped for rapid changes of scene. For example, a work-at-home single parent requires a domestic environment where they can rapidly shift back and forth between personal and professional roles, a multi-task environment where they can prepare meals for her kids and reports for their clients. The relationship between human identity and spatial identity is reciprocal: each presupposes the other. If who we are is defined by human actions performed in space, then we increasingly require homes as flexible as our identities.

Our quick-change lifestyles require living spaces that challenge the ingrained preconceptions of design professionals, both architects and decorators alike. When they take on residential commissions, architects, who until recently were mostly men, typically design the building envelope. Working with fixed elements, they consider questions of site, massing, and infrastructure as they impact the overall distribution of rooms. Then, more often than not, women or professional decorators subsequently outfit the hard stable shell created by architects with more ephemeral elements like fabrics and furniture geared to the more specific and intimate needs of the human body. In other words, each discipline compensates for the omissions of the other: architects attend to large-scale issues while decorators account for human scale needs. Clearly these oppositions between exterior and interior, hard and soft, macro and micro draw on deep-seated stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that continue to shape our underlying impression of these two overlapping (yet nonetheless rival) design disciplines.

Devising domestic environments that promote fluid domestic identities depends on inventing a new design vocabulary that merges the best aspects of the divided worlds of architecture and decoration.  Collapsing hard and fast distinctions between building scale and human scale, stable shell and freestanding furniture, masculinity and femininity, decorating and architecture must be understood as continuous practices. Merging materials and techniques borrowed from each discipline, designers must learn to integrate both the pliable materials favored by decorators with the durable materials employed by architects. No matter if they are rigid or malleable, found on the inside or the outside, the cladding that sheathes the surfaces of our buildings works like the clothing that covers our bodies; all are coded surfaces that enable us to articulate the various identities that we assume each day. Bringing together the best of both worlds, designers must invent a hybrid formal language that, cutting across scale, allows a diverse range of human activities to transpire in coterminous spaces.

Shedding domestic preconceptions also entails embracing an expanded notion of multi-purpose space. Despite their ostensibly divergent design perspectives, the fixed rooms designed by the architect, and the freestanding furniture placed within them by decorators, are both assigned more or less stable uses. But today’s homeowners, faced with floor areas as modest as their budgets, are increasingly looking to designers to help them squeeze maximum use out of minimum floor space. Furniture, not architecture, comes to the rescue– but not without a certain level of anxiety. Day beds, Murphy-beds, and sofa-beds convert studio apartments, living rooms, and dens into private sleeping quarters. 2 While they acknowledge adaptability, these space-saving design strategies still cling to the notion of invariable identity. For example, both the convertible sofa, as well as the room it was designed to transform, oscillate between two fixed terms: sofa/living room on the one hand and bed/bedroom on the other hand. Yet somehow the bed is never comfortable enough, the sofa never attractive enough, and the makeshift guest room falls short of the bedroom it replicates. Never measuring up to the furniture or the room it was intended to approximate, convertibles in the end always seem to draw attention to the flaws–lack of space, comfort and wealth–that they were invented to conceal.

Moving beyond the useful, but nonetheless, limited notion of “convertibility,” I propose Ergo-tectonics, domestic environments with ambiguous identities. Erasing hard and fast distinctions between architecture and decoration, built-ins and freestanding furniture, these open-ended landscapes will sponsor simultaneous uses, allowing their occupants to freely shift roles and activities. Designers should embrace a common, if intuitive household practice: objects intended for single functions are often used in unintended and multiple ways. Most everyone living in a cramped apartment uses their kitchen table as a home office, the underside of their bed as a storage closet. But at the same time, it goes without saying that domestic space and the activities they sponsor are not always interchangeable. Activities like food preparation, bathing, and working more often than not require particular spatial conditions and equipment. Ergo-tectonics must wrestle with the contradictory demands of generic and specific use.

For this reconciliation to happen, we must invent fresh ways of organizing domestic programs. Rather than arrange dwellings according to rooms identified with single purposes (kitchens for cooking, bedrooms for sleeping), we must invent a new household taxonomy that conceives of residential space as an interconnected series of networks– surfaces, materials, and infrastructures– that connect overlapping activities traditionally viewed as distinct from one another. Consider, for a moment, how often hard, horizontal surfaces within the home link a variety of activities. Both dining and working are served by elements—table tops and desk tops– adjusted to the height of the seated body. Likewise, preparing food and putting on make-up, cleaning vegetables and brushing teeth are all actions performed against standing height waterproof counters. Pliable upholstered surfaces adapted to the contours of seated or reclining bodies are another common element found in almost every room of the house. Yet fabrics are, for the most part, used only for furnishings which are themselves thought of as single-purpose entities independent from the hard building shell that encloses them. Flouting design conventions, why not regard both work surfaces and upholstered surfaces as  dynamic multi-functional systems that weave their way through all the spaces of the home?

As we acquire more and more products and equipment for work and leisure, storage becomes another infrastructure central to the contemporary dwelling. Traditionally, designers address storage requirements through differentiation, either concealing belongings behind closed doors (closets) or creating freestanding elements (cabinets) geared for specific rooms. But while they might vary in dimension, storage elements like broom or coat closets and kitchen and file cabinets are, in the end,  all compartments for categorizing commodities. Instead of isolating different species of products in use-specific spaces, designers should treat storage as a continuous network that serves an overlapping series of multi-functional spaces.

Storage, of course, is not the only closeted domestic infrastructure. Out of sight and out of mind, pipes, wires and ducts concealed in wall and ceiling cavities cater to the needs of the biological body. HVAC systems (Heating, Ventilating, Air-conditioning) ensure comfortable atmospheric conditions. Plumbing, typically stems from a central service core and literally joins kitchens, bathrooms and other wet zone of the house. Seen in plan from a bird’s-eye view, these spaces dedicated to serving corporeal needs are often located adjacent to each other for reasons of economy and efficiency. Yet, disavowing the link between eating and elimination, social convention dictates that these proximate spaces are rarely allowed to spatially or visually overlap: the naked and abject body must be screened from view. But as we gradually lift taboos about sex and body, dwelling design will allow kitchens and bathrooms to communicate, expressing the link between two spaces that use water and waterproof materials to wash and dress food and bodies alike.

Another hidden infrastructure, electricity, plays an increasingly crucial role in domestic design as technological devices infiltrate every facet of our lives. Historically, household appliances like refrigerators and stoves, and electronics, like televisions and hi-fi systems, functioned as activity-generating hubs that resulted in spatial differentiation—kitchens, offices, dens. As affordable televisions became mass marketed in the 1950’s, TVs came to compete with, if not replace, the hearth as the center of the home, a development that imfluenced house plans and even living room furniture arrangements. 3 No longer one-of-a-kind objects that centralize activities, appliances today have become networked. We put TVs, VCR’s, stereo systems, computers and sometimes even kitchen appliances in more than one (and sometimes every) room of the home. And yet still, the construction industry builds homes that are electronically challenged, falling far short of the complex demands placed on our increasingly wired lives.

The fact is, our homes now require the same level of electrical accessibility that we once expected only from the workplace: accessible outlets on all available surfaces, walls, floor, and ceilings. What do do? Borrowing from commercial design, homes might employ E-floors. Displacing the concept of the dropped ceiling to the floor, these suspended floor systems define a cavity that allows wiring to be run to any location.

But in the not too distant future, domestic design will follow the lead of product design. In the same way that equipment from exercise bikes to toaster ovens are internally digitized, tectonic surfaces, equipped with built-in computer chips will also soon become “smart. Floors, walls, ceilings and counters might not just support electronic devices, they will themselves becomes such devices. Eliminating the myriad appliances, gadgets and wires that currently clutter our homes, eventually electronic devices will be seamlessly integrated within all the horizontal and vertical surfaces of dwellings.

Giving up deep-seated preconceptions about privacy, propriety, and the body, Ergo-tectonics views the home as an integrated network of overlapping surfaces and connected infrastructures. Durable waterproof multi-task work counters suitable for working, for preparing meals, and for casual dining. Resilient upholstered elements that sponsor lounging, entertaining, exercising, and sleeping. Storage units designed to accommodate everything from canned goods to clothing. Wet areas that cater to all of the intimate needs of the biological body—cooking, eating, washing, dressing—without pandering to traditional notions of decency. “Smart” walls and counters fully outfitted with integrated digital and electronic devices. Finding a common ground between the rival worlds of architecture and decoration, Ergotectonics promises ambiguous yet highly articulate domestic landscapes that will allow each of us to perform our daily rituals in flexible environments responsive to our fluid domestic lives.


  1. The design of standard issue houses and apartments churned out by developers is predicated on outmoded notions of domesticity inherited from mid-19th century England and America. By now feminist and cultural historians have charted the development of the bourgeoisie house, persuasively showing how its design both reflected and help to shape economic and gender relationships by spatializing a new conception of living and working, conceiving of each as taking place in autonomous “spheres.” For the most part, men, as wage earners, were assigned to the public urban realm while women, as household managers, were relegated to the private domestic realm. But it was not until the post-war era, when automobiles and highway networks became available to the middle-classes, that the 19th century domestic dream became a reality in the American suburb.
  2. Obviously, the market for these contraptions is driven by the concept of the private bedroom, a space we now take for granted even though it is relatively new in the history of Western domestic architecture. Up until the 17th century, designers felt no compunction to disguise beds, which they treated as elaborately decorated wooden structures that held their own in multi-purpose public rooms. Even with the invention of quarters reserved for sleeping in the 17th century, people as important as Louis XIVth regularly received guests in their bedchambers. (See Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea, New York: Penguin Books, 1987) But today, it goes without saying that the bedroom is an exclusively private domain. Whether responding to notions of privacy, propriety or class, the modus operandi of convertible beds is shame—the need to conceal an unsightly private act forced to unfold literally in public space.
  3.  Lyn Spiegel discusses the impact of television on mid-century domestic space planning in “The Suburban Home Companion: Television and the Neighborhood Idea in Postwar America,” in Sexuality and Space, ed. Beatriz Colomina, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), 185-217