Is there a future for the smart house? When, already? And what will it entail? Beyond plumbing and electri-city, surely our homes will develop an “inner” net-networked intelligence to manage things more sensibly. Our buildings need to become wiser. Remember, Jane Jetson will be born someday soon, so we’ve got to come up with something more interesting than an Internet toaster.
A look to the past might help. I write this in Kyoto at its cherry blossom peak. Kyoto is a special city, with many ancient wooden buildings intact and in harmony with the newer city. And there is more than charm to the old homes and country inns; centuries of zenlike wisdom are infused into the architecture. Wandering through a garden, I noticed peculiar cedar trees that grew into perfectly straight poles 10 meters high with leafy pompoms on the top, like something Dr. Seuss would have drawn. This was not natural. Thousands of years ago, monks figured out that if a tree’s horizontal limbs were constantly trimmed, it would grow perfectly straight. Over hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, they cultivated forests in this way to supply perfect pillars and timbers for buildings.
That kind of deep value, spanning generations, hardly applies to intelligence technologies yet. There is no zen in my tangled stereo system, or the appliances and early-20th-century heating and lighting systems that clutter our abodes. Home computers haven’t helped. Technology at home is not a symphony. It’s a cacophony.
We have the ability to do better-to build dwellings that are comfortable, beautiful, functional and environmentally friendly. The difficulties are not primarily technical. They are cultural. Fly over the United States and look out the plane window: you could convince yourself that the profession of architect doesn’t really exist. And the patterns of suburbs don’t look much better on the ground. Common sense in design is in uncommonly short supply.
Just look at plumbing. Frank Gehry likes to call architecture “sculpture with plumbing.” Great civilizations don’t grow without good plumbing.
You may have heard of Ephesus, whose ruins overlook the Turkish Aegean coast. Built in the time of Christ, it is a dazzling city with marble-colonnaded streets, a massive amphitheater, a magnificent library-and great plumbing. Ephesus’s Roman rulers took bathing and plumbing seriously, and some of the terra cotta sewers and pipes still work. Ephesian baths had ingenious heating systems to feed hot, warm and cold pools. Walk into the beautiful Roman latrines. You instantly admire the contoured potty seats, the rivulets underneath to carry waste away, the water channel by your feet for washing hands and toes, and the breathtaking view. Compared to my lousy little bathroom in Cambridge, it was a dream.
But go back to the nearby “modern” Turkish town of Kusadasi to use a public restroom and be horrified. To call it a hole in the floor would be generous. It’s as if more than 2,000 years of better living through plumbing had never happened.