Mar 312014

Susan Bernstein’s Housing Problems: Writing and architecture in Goethe, Walpole, Freud and Heidegger is an attempt at extending literary theory to the realm of architecture, and in particular, housing.

It is a project that largely under-delivers on its promise, in an overly wordy and unnecessarily complicated argument that covers up and confuses the structure of the work. However, there are some worthwhile arguments and links between written works and the physical surroundings of the thinker’s analysed. These are not likely to be of interest to anyone who isn’t specifically looking at the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of built housing form.

Housing is a particular area of interest for me, so this book was recommended in the context of providing a theoretical framework for conceptualising the analysis of housing problems.

I don’t really see the arguments presented in the book as a way of analysing housing problems. Rather, to me, it seems much more useful in analysing the structure of housing design in areas over time.

For instance, one argument put forward by Bernstein using Derrida is that housing forms a kind of “social archiving” and self-policing or self-censorship. The social archiving for mine is linked to, but not explicitly stated in the text with Heidegger’s position on the true expression of the self, and relation of the self to the external environment, presented in the architecture of housing.

It might seem overly academic (and it is), however it has direct relationship to the way housing construction and design evolves over time. Once upon a time, houses in Mandurah were almost solely the domain of designs maximising their summertime use as beach house getaways. Now, houses in Mandurah are built to cater for the needs of owner occupiers.

In a recent trip to Lancelin, I could see the beginnings of this evolution begin to happen as well, albeit in the early stages. The same can be seen in Darwin housing. Post cyclone Tracy homes have a completely different texture and function to those being built presently for cashed up southern investors, and those looking for a place to crash in between partying and working well paid shifts.

The social history and interactions with the environment contained in the architecture of housing do create ethical dilemmas, policy problems and social angst when housing evolves. This level of housing problems, which is an extension of the arguments presented by Bernstein in Housing Problems, is not articulated. And it is a shame. Because with the link between the thinkers, and their relationship with built form, and the creation of housing problems as places evolve, the project would have overcome the stumbling blocks that stop this book from becoming a worthwhile read.