La Casa Vivente (The Living Home), extracts from the latest book by Andrea Staid

La casa vivente

An anthropological view of living from the Neolithic era to the present day. From the Earthships to the habitations of the future by way of the Ligurian hills. Exclusively for the Salone del Mobile.Milano, the following are some extracts from Andrea Staid’s latest book, published by ADD Editore: La Casa Vivente. Riparare gli Spazi, Imparare a Costruire (The Living Home. Repairing Spaces, Learning how to Build).

This is the latest book by Andrea Staid, Professor of Cultural and Visual Anthropology at NABA, researcher at the University of Granada and editor of Meltemi’s Biblioteca/Antropologia series. It is an essay on the anthropological view of architecture, the story of living from the Neolithic era to the present day and a travel diary from Andean Peru to Mongolia, by way of many other faraway places, with the spotlight on vernacular architecture. Living houses, their simplicity betraying sustainable and ecological qualities before the words even existed. Mandatory factors these days if we are to avoid extinction. “This is why,” Staid says “against a historical background of climate and environmental collapse, it’s so important to rethink and resignify the domestic space through a respectful relationship with the environment, in order to avoid being overcome by the Anthropocene Epoch … Homes of the future shouldn’t be confined within the walls of flats, but expand outwards to the imprecise limits of the leaves in the parks, of the Third Landscape, in the city and in the country, trying to integrate gardens and their blurred boundaries into the reorganisation of the domestic space … We humans build a vision of the world that starts from our homes, which become spatial and cultural filters.” Man’s desire to include nature within the built environment has always existed and that nature has informed the infinite ways in which we live. The following are extracts from the six chapters of the book, for which grateful thanks are due to the author and the publisher. 

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist and architect of Austrian extraction, maintained that people have three skins: their own epidermis, their clothes and their home. All three need to renew, grow and change. If the third skin, the home, that is, doesn’t grow and alter with the others, it stiffens and dies, like dry skin. 
On my ethnographical observation field trips, the first thing I try to do is create a feeling of trust and active listening. […] It is thanks to this that, amongst the indigenous Dzao communities in a village of entirely self-built pile-dwellings at an altitude of two thousand metres, I began to build up a relationship with the villagers by describing my home through images. I started by showing them a photo of the security door to my flat and at that point the family nucleus I was working with looked at the picture and asked what it was. I explained that it was my front door and they replied that they too had a door, a wooden one, that opens and closes easily; they couldn’t understand why it was so big and so thick. So I explained that, where I live, when we are at home, go to bed or go out, we lock that door. 
“And you’re not scared?” they asked me at that point. 

La casa vivente

1. Our homes 
Heidegger believed that man’s being resided in his dwelling, while according to Benjamin, dwelling is the cocoon in which all human beings take shape. Focusing on our homes, on the ways in which we dwell in the world, means considering how we give shape to our most intimate humanity. 
[…] Living and dwelling, synonymous in many languages, could be considered as part of the formation processes in a dynamic world of energy, forces and flux. 

2. Organic and transparent architecture 
Cities of the future must replace homogeneity with the wealth of diversity in all its forms; organic surfaces must invade, colonise and reclaim the mineral ones, creating openings for the variety of life. 
This should not be a top-down change but should be driven a collective consciousness that has grasped the impossibility of continuing with a lifestyle bound by concrete, omnipresent air conditioners, closure within our private spaces and domesticated nature in all its urban forms. It is time to shift our gaze from the landscape and start focusing on construction materials, to familiarise ourselves better with the places we live, to slow down our lives. We must “dwell less.”

3. A journey round the earth. Vernacular architecture 
In Traditions in Architecture: Africa, America, Asia and Oceania, Dora P. Crouch and June G. Johnson examine architecture in diverse cultures outside the Euroamerican tradition. Reading their study, we see that, unlike traditional surveys of architectural history, there are basic construction characteristics common to all human communities. The buildings that I have come across over the last few years […] don’t simply spring up out of nowhere, they are part of the life and culture of the people they represent, they do not remain unchanged over time, but alter and become enriched by their encounter with new construction technology.  
The last journey I propose […] is across the American Earthships experience – entirely eco-sustainable habitations that bring vernacular architecture and ecotechnology together, true hybrids of tradition and innovation. […] During the early 1970s, the architect Michael Reynolds decided to adopt a new way approach to architecture, and built the first prototype Earthship in Taos, New Mexico, replacing the traditional materials used by the construction industry with simple beer cans, recycled and then plastered. These buildings channel waste retrieval in a capitalist society that pays scant attention to the disposal of their waste, which in this case is turned into opportunities for rethinking housebuilding - some of them are also built using earth-packed tyres instead of bricks. 

4. Living in the crater 
As Franco La Cecla reminds us, we need to retrieve the ability to “enter into a local mindset” – the knack of feeling at home and allowing ourselves to be emotionally swayed by a space, something that tends to be thwarted by planners and bureaucrats.  
Before this consumerist revolution, the home, often built with the help of family and friends, was a refuge, the safe place in which to take care of oneself and of others; it reflected our habits and close ties with places: it was appropriate to the local climate and was built with local materials. The people who built their houses knew the places, were part of a community in which they were reflected and their homes were the natural expression of this. Once begun, they could easily be altered and extended, according to need. 

5. Small gestures, big changes.  Ecological houses, concrete Utopias 
The protagonists of our cities and homes of the future must be plants. We can learn a lot from the plant world. Using only widespread, decentralised and reiterated organisational models they have freed themselves for ever from problems of fragility, bureaucracy, distance, sclerosis, inefficiency, typical of the hierarchical or centralised organisation of an animal nature. 
There will be a major opportunity in the next few years to convert existing homes and, especially, to stop building houses that are polluting for both us and the environment. Passive houses are a good solution. Back in 1988 two Northern European universities decided to join forces to try and come up with a new generation of homes that would have zero impact on the environment. The starting point was to exploit the ecological and vernacular qualities of construction materials and their exposure to the sun to the greatest possible extent, in order to cut the energy requirements for heating the building to a minimum. The research project was led by the German physicist  Wolfgang Feist and Bo Adamson, a researcher in the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University in Sweden. 

6. An anthropologist’s house. My experience on the Ligurian hills
What have I learnt through different ways of living? What have I learnt from my journey around the world and the different vernacular architecture? First of all, I learnt that the internal space is not the most important element of dwelling.. […] After a year spent searching for enormous houses, I followed the example of the indigenous people I met among the mountains of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. I looked for a small house, but with wonderful land exposed to the sun, with lots of olive trees, fruit trees and terraces, where we could start growing our own food. The living space encompasses the land in its entirety, not just the limited footprint of the building itself. 
In the wake of Ellul’s theories and based on his work on the Megamachine, over the last twenty years or so, Serge Latouche has been driving home the importance of degrowth, a concept that frequently fails to be understood as a theory and practice of anticapitalist resistance. 
Along the same lines, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro wonder: “Is there a world to come.”  
I believe there is, but we need to change this economic system, tear our eyes away from the neon lights of capitalism and plot a different route, which includes studying the practices of those who have never embarked upon the path of endless growth. 
There cannot be unlimited growth in a limited world, the destruction of the planet is plain for everyone to see, we need to stop, the Anthropocene is the apocalypse - in both an etymological and an eschatological sense. 


Translation by Bridget Mason


Title: La casa vivente. Riparare gli spazi. Imparare a costruire
Author: Andrea Staid
Published by: ADD Editore
Published: 2021
Pages: 168

27 September 2021