Smart Homes and Living Machines: Views from Performative Architecture Teemu Paavolainen

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Teemu Paavolainen


From Le Corbusier’s “machines for living in” to the “smart homes” of the present, discourses of architecture and technology have sought to extend the everyday assemblage of domestic performance (be it in registers of normativity or enhanced efficacy) in a human-scale middle ground between individual initiative and imposing ideology. With snapshot examples of modernist architecture and ubiquitous computing, this paper’s focus is thus decidedly not on performance as “human or non-human” behaviour, but rather, on a sense of everyday performativity as the material intertwining (and hence perhaps co-emergence) of both. Whether the context is of “household engineering” or “distributed cognition,” one key strand is how the dramaturgical organization of rooms and kitchens specifically is variously seen to coincide with that of life processes or indeed ways of living; toward the end, the recurrent worry over human control is addressed by appeal to an openly mechanical sense of mundane theatricality.


“A machine for living in” – this is how Le Corbusier famously stated “the problem of the house” in the 1920s: “A certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, and personal life,” with “receptacles in which each thing can be put at once in its right place.” Moreover, “a specific compartment corresponds to a specific function, and the function arises regularly in a specific place” – this concerning the house itself (where “one sleeps, one wakes, one acts, one works, … one eats, and one goes to sleep”) but also built-in fittings from which to “bring out your pictures one at a time when you want them” rather than “riot” your walls with “all manner of things.” With newfound affordances of steel, glass, and concrete, the source domain is decidedly extra-domestic: the world of airplanes and railways (the ratios and details of sleepers and dining cars and parlour cars); clubs, banks, and offices; “the decks of ocean liners.” Indeed, with this migration of affordances and “type-elements” from traffic machines, the very blocking of a Corbusier house – with sliding walls and servants conveniently hidden backstage – serves to support not only the merest manners of sitting down and moving about, but a collective ethos more characteristic of his fellow artists than of its prospective inhabitants. If Louis Sullivan’s 1896 dictum that “form follows function” set the modernist ideal of functional performativity, with Le Corbusier it solidifies into set standards, “based on problems well stated” and “established by experiment.” (Le Corbusier 1986, 107, 114–17, 120, 123, 131; Le Corbusier in Kirsch 1989, 113–15)

Meanwhile, very similar principles are at work in American “scientific management,” set to eliminate unnecessary motions and to make the necessary more efficient. In her 1915 correspondence course on Household Engineering, Mrs. Christine Frederick (dubbing herself a “Household Efficiency Engineer”) first laments her once lack of energy “to ‘dress up’ in the evening” to enjoy her husband’s “story of the day’s work,” then takes up the “efficiency idea” to standardize her own industry or business of home-making: “Couldn’t my housework train be despatched from station to station, from task to task … [so] I wouldn’t lose time in thinking what to do next or in useless interruptions?” So again the domestic takes on the industrial: Food factory rather than heart of home, “the labour-saving kitchen” is only reserved “for the preparation of food,” small and “almost square” to “permit the most step-saving arrangement of the main equipment.” Likewise, if kitchen work itself “does not consist of independent, separate acts” but only of the two interrelated processes of preparing food and clearing away, then both should be performed in definite steps, in a definite order, along set routes. For the work to “proceed in a progressive, step-saving track,” “the ‘routing’ or step-saving method of kitchen arrangement requires separate surfaces for each process,” and also “a definite piece of equipment [for] each definite step”: Thus “arranging and grouping equipment to meet the actual order of work is the basis of kitchen efficiency.”(Frederick 1923, 7–8, 14, 19–25 italics omitted) (See Mrs. Frederick’s exemplary images of good and bad groupings.)

Eighty years later, similar ideas are again found in David Kirsh’s now-classic article on spatial arrangements and dynamics that simplify choice, perception, and computation from the perspective of cognitive science: how we manage or organize the world that “constrains and guides our behavior,” so as to reduce its “descriptive complexity,” and to “bring the time and memory demands of our tasks down to workable levels.” For example, this happens through the hiding or highlighting of affordances, planting the environment with cues and constraints that “locally determine … behavior at every choice point”: Be they physical (blocked doors) or merely perceived (food out of sight), “the fewer degrees of freedom an agent has the simpler its task,” “ballistically determined” or with steps of decision “designed out of the process.” One pertinent way of reducing the complexity of choice by hiding affordances evokes but also pre-dates my earlier examples: “Every time we serially decompose a complex task by dividing the space in which it is performed into functional stations where specific subtasks are performed, we create a production line.” If “the equipment and surfaces of a station effectively trigger an action frame or task context … the local affordances make clear what can and must be done.” Kirsh’s example proclaims precisely the principles of household engineering that Frederick laid out earlier: “In my kitchen at home, a task as simple as preparing a plain garden salad, reveals a latent production line because I wash vegetables by the sink and cut them on a chopping board.” (Kirsh 1995, 31–2, 43–4, 39, 49–50, 65)

Now, what I would specifically like to address here are the often functionalistic and mechanistic assumptions that these early-twentieth-century examples share with current accounts of mind as “distributed” or “extended,” figuring design and cognition alike as “problem-solving” by machineries both mental and material, the conscious mind as “a new-style business manager” merely maintaining the overall performance. My default reference throughout is philosopher Andy Clark’s Natural-Born Cyborgs of 2003. (Clark 2003, 5–6, 135) If Le Corbusier’s living machine, as Jonathan Hill suggests, “is only an accurate description of functionalist sensibilities if the human is a component of the machine” not its master or servant, for Clark “matrices of brain, body, and technology can actually constitute the problem-solving machine that we should properly identify as ourselves.” (Hill 2003, 16; Clark 2003, 27) While the machine may no longer quite so depend on its components remaining “in place” (pictures in cupboards, servants in their quarters, women in the kitchen), its operation is often still relegated to a “user,” who again is often neutered or abstracted as fixed, measurable, passive, constant: for Le Corbusier, a universal male body that paradigmatically “learns to operate a space the way the technician learns to operate a machine – the correct way.” (Hill 2003, 16) (Surely this is all more pronounced in the 1920s, with Le Corbusier’s critics wondering whether his houses present “a program for living itself” or “a mere paraphrase … of studio life”; or indeed, whether the intellectual “type” could determine a form of housing for mass production, given that many potential clients would still prefer enclosed bedrooms not only to rest in but also to “make love, procreate, give birth, and die.” (Cited in Kirsch 1989, 117–18)) Keeping to Clark’s theme of our constantly “building better worlds to think in,” (Clark 2003, 78) accordingly, perhaps these could also adapt to our cognitive strengths and weaknesses in a less-mechanistic manner?


With changes in prototypical technology, the modernist “man and machine” now appear increasingly immersed and implicated in tacit infrastructures without which they couldn’t quite be sustained – ones perhaps that leave ourselves “dumb in peace,” rather mobilizing associations of home than of the machine (as in “home is where the Wi-Fi connects automatically”), de-emphasizing rational intelligence for the style and art implicit in smart (the new key quality sought in device, decorum, and dwelling). Hence the contemporary ideal of the living machine: the “smart home,” replete as Dourish and Bell outline, with “proactive networks, sensors and real-time feedback,” “computational devices … small and powerful enough to be worn, carried, or embedded in the world around us – in doors and tables, the fabric of clothes and buildings, and the objects of everyday life”: “sensing doorknobs, intelligent toilet doors, … and anthropomorphic cleaning equipment along with the ever-present smart refrigerator.” (Dourish and Bell 2011, 30, 2, 29) If the early tenets of functional efficiency came from the likes of F. W. Taylor and Le Corbusier, those of ubiquitous computing were outlined in Mark Weiser’s 1991 declaration that “the most profound technologies … are those that disappear,” “weaving themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” (Weiser 1991, 78)

Thus if there is truth to Lev Manovich’s argument that cognitive science became “for the age of automation” what scientific management was for that of industrialization, (Manovich 1995, 6) what it has since learned is now routinely exploited by our mundane environments. To cite Clark’s pet example, if the homes of Alzheimer’s sufferers may at times be quite conspicuously “calibrated to support and scaffold these biological brains,” so too are our normative worlds increasingly integrated to our lives, capacities, and projects. To summarize his arguments, in Clark’s view the smartest environments take on “many of the functions that might otherwise occupy our conscious attention”: Becoming less technology than “human-centered,” our most dynamically adaptive, transparent technologies are “poised to be taken for granted” much like our neural circuitry ever was. Second, “as our worlds become smarter and get to know us better and better, it becomes harder and harder to say where the world stops and the person begins”: “The very best of [our technologies] are not so much used as incorporated into the user herself … as aspects of the thinking process … impacting who, what and where we are.” Third, what matters is “their poise for easy use and deployment as and when required” – not their apparent newness (indeed the “gradual smartening-up” of our homes and offices is built on generations of “mindware upgrades” provided by “pen, paper, [and] the pocket watch”), nor “whether they are neurally or technologically realized.”(Clark 2003, 140, 30, 38, 44, 7, 198, 41, 10, 68)

Accordingly, what most obviously distinguishes our early-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century ideals of design and cognition are their respective allegiances to location and ubiquity, mechanical sequence and contextual saturation. With the straight line of modernist rationality veritably fragmented by “web” imagery, the technological texture of everyday life now increasingly evades easy divisions of inside/outside or private/public. Thus also the ever-emergent smart home must navigate competing infrastructures, “inherently messy” and “unevenly distributed” (Dourish and Bell 2011, 42, 27–8) – the Internet of Things heralding the convergence not of man and machine but of operating systems, yet precisely challenged by their dissonance, maintenance, obsolescence, and Frederickian routing: In a world where categories both collapse (telephone/camera/computer) and expand (from furnishing to its Facebookability), the use of functionally definite equipment increases rather than reduces the number of operational steps per task. Cognitively, we may thus need to abandon the idiom of “tasks/problems” altogether for that of skilled practice, and the residually mechanistic notion of “interaction” for those of coping and coupling or perhaps “interweaving”: a more enactive performativity of immersion and transparent incorporation; not to reduce mind and cognition to either the human agent or her technologies, but rather to tease out ways in which it is “brought forth” in their very “co-emergence” or indeed “co-evolution” over time. (Cf. Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1991; Paavolainen forthcoming-b) For enhanced efficacy to result, however, this very ecology must itself also recede from consciousness – whether it engages a factory of working bodies or mere haptics on a mobile device, all that once was solid now apparently melts into the Cloud.


“How then [asks Clark] can we alter and control that of which we are barely aware?” If Taylorist management strove to deprive the worker of any degree of freedom and initiative by strictly separating her execution of the work from its design and planning (cf. Frederick’s worries of “losing time in thinking” (Frederick 1923, 14)), these are currently even further displaced and distributed in technological environments that, as Clark also admits, “provide for an unprecedented depth and quality of surveillance”: “In the era of ubiquitous computing and swarm intelligence, walls really do have ears, and memories too.” (Clark 2003, 48, 170–1) Setting aside the viral fringe of our newly-intimate technologies, however – of our smart pets and doors getting hacked behind our backs – there is an enduring myth of their still being ours to “use” (surely only bolstered by my own use of “our”). An already suspect term in architectural discourse, “user” also “fails to reflect the sharply reduced volitionality” that Adam Greenfield relates to the “everyware” of ubiquitous systems, perhaps “engaged by the [mere] act of stepping into a room”: “Ambient, peripheral, and not focally attended to in the way that something actively ‘used’ must be,” “one no more ‘uses’ [it] than one would a … floor to stand on … so the word carries along with it the implication of an agency that simply may not exist.” (Greenfield 2006, 70) Cognitively, possible ways of theorizing this fluctuate between two close extremes: If cognitive extension occurs when a set of heterogeneous resources is instrumentally recruited to an “ecological assembly,” on the spot, then enactive incorporation only occurs when such resources are no longer experienced as objects but “function transparently in the body’s sense-making interactions with the environment.” (See Kiverstein and Clark 2009, 4; Paavolainen forthcoming-b)

So how are we to deal with the ethics of transparency insofar as it serves to naturalize both our technologies and the ideologies they always already embody? From Clark we can derive two options: First, the utterly resistant “In-Your-Face Technology” of old, one not “to fade into the background of anyone’s life or work” let alone “blur the boundaries” as it “made few efforts to configure itself” to human cognitive capacities – not exactly “‘hard to understand’ as much as ‘highly visible in use’,” such opaque technology “remains the focus of attention even during routine … activity.” Second, “flipping between invisibility-in-use and availability for thought and inspection” (Heidegger’s ready-to-hand and present-at-hand): making technology not invisible but “extravisible” as in Dourish’s “tangible computing,” which Clark conjures “to take digital abstractions … and make them as solid and manipulable as rocks and stones.” Akin to Don Norman’s early advice on keeping affordances visible, he notes it is often the very features “that make [a technology] ‘tangible’ (the way it exploits our ease and familiarity with everyday objects) that allow it to become invisible in daily use.” (Clark 2003, 36–7, 48–9, 56; see also Norman 1995) A third option could be to take an aesthetic perspective, as an alternative to “the ‘user-friendly’ approach [of] the human factors community, which [Anthony Dunne sees to] reduce the relationship between people and technology to a level of cognitive clarity.” Here we may either follow him in further “poeticizing” their distance through familiar figures of estrangement and alienation, or recognize with Manovich how even the traditional desktops were soon aestheticized once redefined as consumer objects: how brands like Apple, in countering the standard modernist aesthetics of information appliances – “cold, indifferent to human presence, suited only for business” – would explicitly appeal to the senses by “staging technology as magical and supernatural.” (Dunne 2005, 21–3 (my italics); Manovich 2007, 9)

But are not such emphases on dramatic experience fairly opposed to Weiser’s ubi-comp agenda of technologies “weaving themselves into the fabric of everyday life”? Certainly both are key to any discussion of theatricality and performativity as lived qualities: In terms of cognitive/architectural “ecology” (from a Greek stem for house), the naïve question is whether the relationship of dwelling and inhabitant is designed to be fully functional or is ostensibly mediated by degrees of ornament and spectacle. In this paper, I have admittedly focused on overlapping varieties of the performative, as novelty and normativity, doing and dissimulation, the heroic and the homeostatic – performances of uncluttered efficiency and their tacit grounding in cables or concrete, the “mess and mythology” of ubiquitous computing that Dourish and Bell discuss. The theatrical, in this scheme, resides in the dramatic, the aesthetic, the sensuous: Expanded from ideals of “total theatre” to those of “augmented reality,” these have also been the qualities of choice when technology has variously been equated either with malign manipulation (that which diverts, comes between, does not work) or with a magic enchantment of the everyday. So on the one hand we have here a specifically anti-technological variant of the good old anti-theatrical prejudice (Barish 1981), on the other, a newly positive (and hence suspect) valorization of theatricality as a potent slogan or marketing value at the cutting edge of the “experience economy.” (Cf. Pine and Gilmore 1999) Inclined though I am to prefer metaphors of weaving over those of building, (Paavolainen forthcoming-a; see also Ingold 2015) the value of such theatricality might just lie in its exploiting our crude sense of mechanics: If it is a “perceptual modality,” as many suggest (Notably Burns 1972), then in Clark’s cognitive terms its very function is to “render certain features of our world concrete and salient” so we may “target our thoughts … on elements of a scene that were previously too ‘unmarked’.” (Clark 2014, 172)


Teemu Paavolainen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Practice as Research in Theatre, University of Tampere, currently completing a research monograph provisionally titled Texture: Theatricality and Performativity from a Dramaturgical Perspective. His Theatre/Ecology/Cognition: Theorizing Performer-Object Interaction in Grotowski, Kantor, and Meyerhold was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.

Works Cited

Barish, Jonas 1981. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burns, Elizabeth 1972. Theatricality: A Study of Convention in the Theatre and in Social Life. London: Longman.

Clark, Andy 2003. Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

–––– 2014. Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. Second Edition. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dourish, Paul, and Genevieve Bell 2011. Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Dunne, Anthony 2005. Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Frederick, Christine 1923/1915. Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home. A Correspondence Course. Chicago: Home Economics Association. Online:

Greenfield, Adam 2006. Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Hill, Jonathan. 2003. Actions of Architecture. London and New York: Routledge.

Ingold, Tim 2015. The Life of Lines. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kirsch, Karin 1989. The Weissenhofsiedlung: Experimental Housing Built for the Deutscher Werkbund, Stuttgart, 1927. Trans. David Britt. New York: Rizzoli.

Kirsh, David 1995. “The Intelligent Use of Space.” Artifical Intelligence 73, 31–68. Online:

Kiverstein, Julian, and Andy Clark (eds.) 2009. “Mind Embodied, Embedded, Enacted: One Church or Many?” Topoi 28:1, 1–73. [Special Issue on 4E Cognition.]

Le Corbusier 1986/1931. Towards a New Architecture. Trans. Frederick Etchells. New York: Dover.

Manovich, Lev 1995. “The Labor of Perception.” Online:

–––– 2007. “Information as an Aesthetic Event.” Online:

Norman, Donald A. 1995. Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Paavolainen, Teemu 2012. Theatre/Ecology/Cognition: Theorizing Performer-Object Interaction in Grotowski, Kantor, and Meyerhold. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

–––– (forthcoming-a). “Meaning in the Weaving: Mapping and Texture as Figures of Spatiality and Eventness.” Nordic Theatre Studies 27:2.

–––– (forthcoming-b). “Textures of Thought: Theatricality, Performativity, and the Extended/Enactive Debate.” In Peter Garratt (ed.), The Cognitive Humanities: Embodied Mind in Literature and Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pine, B. Joseph, II, and James H. Gilmore 1999. The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business A Stage. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weiser, Mark 1991. “The Computer for the 21st Century.” Scientific American 265:3, 94–104.


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