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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 8 February 24, 2024

Dwelling | Ivan Illich (1984)

Saturday 24 February 2024


Text of Adress to the Royal Institute of British Architects, July 1984

To dwell is human. Wild beast have nests, cattle have stables, carriages fit into sheds, and there are garages for automobiles. Only humans can dwell. To dwell is an art. Every spider is born with a compulsion to weave a web particular to its kind. Spiders, like all animals, are programmed by their genes. The human is the only animal who is an artist, and the art of dwelling is part of the art of living. A house is neither nest nor garage.

Most languages use living in the sense of dwelling. To put the question, ‘where do you live?’ is to ask for the place where your daily existence fives shape to the world. Just tell me how you dwell and I will tell you who you are. This equation of dwelling and living goes back to times when the world was still habitable and humans were in-habitants. To dwell then meant to inhabit one’s own traces, to let daily life write the webs and knots of one’s biography into the landscape. This writing could be etched into stone by successive generations or sketched anew for each rainy season with a few reeds and leaves. Man’s habitable traces were as ephemeral as their inhabitants. Dwellings were never completed before occupancy, in contrast to the contemporary commodity, which decays from the day it is ready to use. A tent had to be mended daily, it had to be put up, stretched, pulled down. A homestead waxes and wanes with the state of its members: you can often discern from a distant slope whether the children are married, whether the old ones have already died. Building goes on from lifetime to lifetime; rituals mark its prominent stages: generations might have passed since the laying of the cornerstone until the cutting of the rafters. Nor is the quarter of a town ever completed; right into the eighteenth century the residents of popular quarters defended their own art of dwelling by rioting against the improvements that architects to tried to foist on them. Dwelling is part of that moral economy which E.P. Thompson has so well described. It succumbed to the king’s avenues, which in the name of order, cleanliness, security and decorum tore up the neighborhoods. It succumbed to the police which in the nineteenth century named streets and numbered houses. It succumbed to the professionals who introduced sewers and controls. It was almost extinguished by welfare, which exalted the right of each citizen to his own garage and TV.

Dwelling is an activity that lies beyond the reach of the architect not only because it is a popular art; not only because it goes on and on in waves that escape his control; not only because it is of a tender complexity outside of the horizon of mere biologists and system analysts; but above all because no two communities dwell alike. Habit and habitat say almost the same. Each vernacular architecture (to use the anthropologist’s term) is a unique as vernacular speech. The art of living in its entirety — that is, the art of loving and dreaming, of suffering and dying — makes each lifestyle unique. And therefore this art is much too complex to be taught by the methods of a Comenius or Pestalozzi, by a schoolmaster or by TV. It is an art which can only be picked up. Each person becomes a vernacular builder and a vernacular speaker by growing up, by moving from on initiation to the next in becoming either a male or a female inhabitant. Therefore the Cartesian, three-dimensional, homogeneous space into which the architect builds, and the vernacular space which dwelling brings into existence, constitute different classes of space. Architects can do nothing but build. Vernacular dwellers generate the axioms of the spaces they inhabit.

The contemporary consumer of residence space lives topologically in another world. The coordinates of residential space within which he locates himself are the only world of which he has had experience. He finds it impossible to believe that cattle-herding Peul and the cliff-hanging Dogon and the fishing Songhai and the tilling Bobo live in heterogeneous spaces that fit into the very same landscape, as seen by most ecologists. For the modern resident a mile is a mile, and after each mile comes another, because the world has no center. For the dweller the center of the world is the place where he lives, and ten miles up the river might be much closer than one mile into the desert. According to many anthropologists, the dweller’s culture distorts his vision. In fact, it determines the characteristics of the space he inhabits.

The resident has lost much of his power to dwell. The necessity to sleep under a roof for him has been transmogrified into a culturally defined need. The liberty to dwell has become insignificant for him. He needs the right to claim a certain number of square feet in built-up space. He treasures entitlements to deliveries and the skills to use them. The art of living for him is forfeited: he has no need for the art of dwelling because he needs an apartment; just as he has no need for the art of suffering and has probably never though about the art of dying.

The resident lives in world that has been made. He can no more beat his path on the highway that he can make a hole in a wall. He goes through his life without leaving a trace. The marks he leaves are considered dents — wear and tear. What he does leave behind him will be removed as garbage. From commons for dwelling the environment has been redefined as a resource for the production of garages for people, commodities and cars. Housing provides cubicles in which residents are housed. Such housing is planned, built and equipped for them. To be allowed to dwell minimally in one’s own housing constitutes a special privilege: only the rich may move a door or drive a nail into a wall. Thus the vernacular space of dwelling is replaced by the homogeneous space of the garage. Settlements look the same from Taiwan to Ohio and from Lima to Peking. Everywhere you find the same garage for the human — shelves to store the work-force overnight, handy for the means of its transportation. Inhabitants dwelling in spaces they fashion have been replaced by residents sheltered in buildings produced for them, duly registered as consumers of housing protected by the Tenants’ or the Credit Receivers’ Act.

To be put up in most societies is a sign of misery: the orphan is taken in, the pilgrim put up, the condemned man imprisoned, the slave locked up overnight and the soldier — but only since the eighteenth century — billeted in barracks. Before that even the army had to provide its own dwelling by camping. Industrial society is the only one which attempts to make every citizen into a resident who must be sheltered and this is absolved from the duty of that social and communitary activity that I call dwelling. Those who insist now on their liberty to dwell on their own are either very well off or treated as deviants. This is true both for those whom so-called ‘development’ has not yet untaught the desire to dwell, and for the unpluggers who seek new forms of dwelling that would make the industrial landscape inhabitable — at least in its cracks and weak spots.

Both the non-modernized and the post-modern oppose society’s ban on spatial self-assertion, and will have to reckon with the police intervening against the nuisance they create. They will be branded as intruders, illegal occupants, anarchists and nuisances, depending on the circumstance under which they assert their liberty to dwell: as Indians who break in and settle on fallow land in Lima; as favellados in Rio de Janeiro, who return to squat on the hillside from which they have just been driven — after 40 years’ occupancy — by the police; as students who dare to convert ruins in Berlin’s Kreuzberg into their dwellings, as Puerto Ricans who force their way back into walled-up and burnt buildings of the South Bronx. They will all be removed, not so much because of the damage they do to the owner of the site, or because they threaten the health or peace of their neighbors, but because of the challenge to the social axiom that defines a citizen as a unit in need of a standard garage.

Both the Indian tribe that moves down from the Andes into the suburbs of Lima and the Chicago neighborhood council that unplugs itself from the city housing authority challenge the now-prevalent model of the citizen as homo castrensis, billeted man. But. With their challenges, the newcomer and the breakaway provoke opposite reactions. The Indios can be treated like pagans who must be educated into an appreciation of the state’s maternal care for their shelter. The unplugger is much more dangerous: he gives testimony to the castrating effects of the city’s maternal embrace. Unlike the pagan, this kind of heretic challenges the axiom of civic religion which underlies all current ideologies which on the surface are in opposition. According to this axiom, the citizen as homo castrensis needs the commodity called ‘shelter’; his right to shelter is written into the law. This right the unplugger does not oppose, but he does object to the concrete conditions under which the right to shelter is in conflict with the liberty to dwell. And for the unplugger this liberty, when in conflict, is presumed to be of greater value than the commodity of shelter, which by definition is scarce.

The conflict between vernacular and economic values is, however, not limited to the space on the inside of the threshold. It would be a mistake to limit the effects of dwelling to the shaping of the interiors; what lies outside one’s front door is as much shaped by dwelling, albeit in a different way. Inhabited land lies on both sides of the threshold; the threshold is like the pivot of the space that dwelling creates. On this side lies home, and on the other lies the commons: the space that households inhabit is common. It shelters the community as the house shelters its members. Just as no two communities have the same style of dwelling, nona can have the same commons. Custom rules who may and who must use the commons, and how and when and where. Just as the home reflects in its shape the rhythm and extent of family life, so the commons are the trace of the commonality. There can be no dwelling without its commons. It takes time for the immigrant to recognize that highways are neither streets nor paths but resources reserved for transportation. I have seen many Puerto Ricans who arrived in New York and needed years to discover that sidewalks were not part of a plaza. All over Europe, to the despair of Germain bureaucrats, Turks pull their chairs into the street for a chat, for a bet, for some business, to be served coffee and to put up a stall. It takes time to forego the commons, to recognize that traffic is as lethal to business as to gossip outside the doorway. The distinction between private and public space for the modern shelter consumer does not replace but destroys the traditional distinction between the home and the commons articulated by the threshold. However, what housing as a commodity has done to the environment has so far not been recognized by our ecologists. Ecology still acts as a subsidiary or twin to economics. Political ecology will become radical and effective only as it recognizes that the destruction of the commons by their transformation into economic resources is the environmental factor which paralyzes the art of dwelling.

One demonstration of the destruction of commons is the degree to which our world has become inhabitable. As the number of people increases, paradoxically we render the environment uninhabitable. Just as more people need to dwell, the war against vernacular dwelling has entered its last stage and people are forced to seek housing which is scarce. A generation ago Jane Jacobs effectively argued that in traditional cities the art of dwelling and the aliveness of the commons increase both as cities expand and also as people move closer together. And yet during the last thirty years almost everywhere in the world, powerful means have been employed to rape the local community’s art of dwelling and thereby create an increasingly acute sense of scarce living space.

This housing rape of the commons is no less brutal than the poisoning of water. The invasion of the last enclaves of dwelling space by housing programs is no less obnoxious than the creation of smog. The ever-repeated juristic prejudice in favor of the right to housing, whenever this claim conflicts with the liberty to explore new ways of dwelling, is as repressive as the laws which enforce the lifestyle of the ‘productive human’ couple. However, it needs to be proclaimed. Air, water and alternative ways of cohabitation have found their protectors. Curricula offer them training, and bureaucracies offer them jobs. The liberty to dwell and the protection of a habitable environment for the moment remain the concern of minority citizen’s movements; and even these movements are all too often corrupted by architects who misinterpret their aims.

‘Build-it-yourself’ is thought of as a mere hobby — or as a consolation for shanty-towns. The return to rural life is dubbed romanticism. Inner-city fishponds and chickencoops are regarded as mere games. Neighborhoods that ‘work’ are flooded by highly-paid sociologists until they fail. House-squatting is regarded as civil disobedience, restorative squatting as an outcry for better and more housing. But in the field of housing, as much as in the fields of eduction, medicine, transportation or burial, those who unplug themselves are no purists. I know a family that herds a few goats in the Appalachians and in the evening plays with a battery-powered computer. I know an illegal occupant who has broken into a walled-up Harlem tenement and sends his daughters to a private school.

Yet neither ridicule nor psychiatric diagnosis will make the unpluggers go away. They have lost the conscience of the Calvinist hippies and grow their own brand of sarcasm and political skill. Their own experience tells them that they enjoy the art of living which they recover by dwelling more than they enjoyed the comfort they left. And increasingly they become more capable of putting into pithy gestures their rejection of the axioms about homo castrensis on which industrial society partly rests.

And there are other considerations which make the recovery of dwelling space seem reasonable today. Modern methods, materials and machines make build-it-yourself ever so much simpler and less tiresome than it was before. Growing unemployment takes the stigma of being asocial away from those who short-circuit the building unions. Increasingly, trained construction workers have to relearn completely their trade to ply it in a form of unemployment which is useful to them and their community. The gross inefficiency of buildings put up in the seventies makes previously unthinkable transformations seem less odious, and even reasonable, to neighbors who would have protested a few years ago. The experience of the Third World converges with the experience in the South Bronx. The president of Mexico, while campaigning for election, stated without ambiguity: the Mexican economy cannot now nor in the future provide housing units for most of its citizens. The only way in which all Mexicans will be agreeably housed will be via provision in laws and of materials that enable each Mexican community to house itself better than ever before.

What is here proposed is enormous: the unplugging of a nation from the worldwide market in housing units. I do not believe that a Third World country can do this. As long as a country considers itself underdeveloped, it takes its models from the North, be this the capitalist or the socialist cheek. I cannot believe that such a country could really unplug itself, as a nation. Too much power accrues to any government from the ideology of man ‘billeted’ by nature. The utopia of nation building and housing construction are closely linked in the thinking of all élites I know, especially in the Third World. I believe that liberty to dwell, and the provision of the instruments — legal and material — to make this choice feasible, must be recognized first in the countries that are ‘developed.’ Here the unplugger can argue with much more conviction and precision why he places this liberty above the entitlement to a garage. Let him then look to Mexico to learn what adobe can do.

And the arguments that place the recovery of vernacular power to dwell over the impotent claims to personal storage are on the increase. As we have seen, they are consistent with the direction the ecological movement takes when it does get out from under the wings of the economy, the science of scarce values. They are consistent with a new radical analysis of technology that opposes the enrolment of people as volunteers in the building industry and modern tools adopted by people to remedy their defective ability to dwell. But more important than these is the argument that has not yet been formulated, but that I read into many of the concrete initiatives that I have observed.

Space fit to bear the marks of life is as basic for survival as clean water and fresh air. Human beings simply do not fit into garages, no matter how splendidly furnished with showers and energy-saving devices. Homes and garages are just not the same sort of space. Homes are neither the human nests to which sociobiologists would reduce them, nor shelves on which people cannot survive regardless of how well they are cushioned. Garages are storage spaces for objects that circulate through the homogeneous space of commodities; nests are shaped and occupied by animals whose instincts tie them to their territory. Humans dwell. They have inhabited the Earth in a thousand different ways and copied from each other the forms of their dwellings. What had determined for millennia the changing character of the dwelling space was not instinct and genes but culture, experience and thought. Both territory and dwelling space are, admittedly, three-dimensional in character, but as to their meaning, they are not spaces of the same kind — no more than dwelling space and garages. None of the sciences that we now have can properly grasp this variety of topologies — neither sociology, nor anthropology, nor can history as now mostly undertaken abandon the central perspective in which the difference that count disappear. I do believe that the disciplined opposition of human experience under the reign of vernacular values, and under the regime of scarcity, is a first step toward clarifying this difference — which counts. And without the recovery of a language in which this difference can be stated, the refusal to identify with the model of ‘billeted man’ and the search for new vernacular dwelling space cannot become politically effective…

And so, when the act of dwelling becomes a subject of politics, it comes inevitably to a parting of the ways. On the one side there will be concern for the ‘housing package’ — how to entitle everyone to get their share of built cubage, well situated and well equipped. On this side the packaging of the poor with their housing unit will become a growth sector for social workers when there is no more money left for the architects. On the other side there will be concern for the right of a community to form and accommodate itself according to its ability and art. In the pursuit of this goal it will appear to many in the the North that the fragmenting of the habitat and the loss of traditions has caused the right to dwellable habitat to be forfeited. Young people who insist on housing themselves will look with envy Southwards, where space and tradition are still alive.

This budding envy of the underdeveloped must be cured with courage and reflection. But in the Third Wold survival itself depends on the correct balance between a right to ‘build-it-yourself’ and the right to possess a piece of land and some things such as one’s own roof rafters.

— Ivan Illich


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