A machine for living in, not

A critique of the mechanistic world view

I wrote recently about the idea of a house being considered a home or an asset, now I will consider whether a house is a machine or actually something much more compelling, like a place to make a home.

The influential architect Le Corbusier famously said a house is a machine for living in.

A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on. 
– Le Corbusier

A house might be artificial but it is certainly not a machine. Neither is it a tool, not in any true sense of the word. A house is a functional human artifact more like a hat or a dress. However, when Le Corbusier says an armchair is ‘a machine for sitting in’ you begin to realise his attitude. Presumably, for Le Corbusier, everything that performs a function is a machine. Perhaps, for Le Corbusier, a tumbler is a machine for drinking out of, a notebook is a machine for writing in, a dress is a machine for covering yourself and a condom is a machine for avoiding unwanted pregnancy. Where does it end?

On the contrary, Wikipedia defines a machine as ‘a physical system using power to apply forces and control movement to perform an action.’ A house doesn’t perform an action, as such, but it does provide valuable functions such as shelter, safety, privacy, a hub for human ‘actions’ and activities and perhaps most importantly, a home for its inhabitants. 

What makes a house a home?

A home is a place where one lives, and so is a house. The difference is that ‘house’ refers to the actual building, a house becomes a home when someone lives in it, it becomes the ‘centre for life’ with all the values and emotional force that brings. The point is that a house must ultimately be a home. That is it’s purpose.

A home is not soulless or lifeless. A home is a living thing, it’s more organismal than mechanical. A house is more like a snail’s shell, a spider’s web, a bird’s nest or a beaver’s dam. You wouldn’t call any of these machines. You could argue that none of those animals built these structures by design. I agree that houses are indeed designed, but not as machines, more like a pair of shoes or a backpack. 

A machine is the size and shape it is for technical reasons firstly, and then human and other reasons after that. A house is the size and shape that it is for human reasons, primarily, and then for technical and other reasons. A machine follows its own form. The very best example is the bicycle. A dress, a chair and even a house follows the human form. Obviously, there are exceptions but they just prove the rule.

A machine for living in, not

It is dangerous to think of things as machines when they aren’t. The Mechanistic worldview oversimplifies our perspective. Le Corbusier’s designs are certainly machine-like and there is something starkly beautiful about them which also makes them seem lifeless and cold – their factory/hospital aesthetic is forbidding and bare. If you contrast Le Corbusier’s designs with the house designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (of ‘Fallingwater’ fame) there is quite a contrast. Wright brought an equally Modern aesthetic but retained a naturalness of form and character that makes his homes, from an outsider’s perspective at least, seem much more welcoming and touching.

Wright believed in designing structures that are in harmony with humanity and its environment, a principle he called ‘organic architecture’. Frank Lloyd Wright felt that a house or building was like an organism, relating not only to the building’s specific relationship to the natural surroundings, but how the building’s design is carefully thought about as if it were a unified organic system. For Wright each building must be unique because “[t]he building grows out of the landscape as naturally as any plant; its relationship to the site is so unique that it would be out of place elsewhere.”

“Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright

I am not being pedantic, my point is really not one of semantics, but of attitude. If you think of something as being a machine you will make it look and act like a machine.

The mechanistic view of the world

Frank Lloyd Wright said “mechanisation best serves mediocrity” meaning that the mechanistic attitude to life in general and architecture in particular leads to uniformity and the banal. However, the ongoing mechanisation of human life is much worse than just being banal. The mechanistic view of life is harmful. It is a way of thinking that leads to the perception that the world, and things in it, including people, can be manipulated and controlled like a machine – and this is what people then do.

Rene Descartes was an early enlightenment thinker, and he based his science on his belief that animals and humans are entirely mechanistic automata, as he explains:

“I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.” – Descartes, Treatise on Man

Through the years this mechanistic view of nature has filtered into every aspect of society, including government, education, health, and other social services. It is the perspective that people can manipulate anything and fix the resultant problems with the same type of machination that caused them. This thinking couldn’t be any more wrong.

When machines break you can fix them or simply replace them. We can’t replace nature, it is not a machine. There is no way to fix an extinct species. The harm humans have done, and are continuing to do, to nature is irreparable in many cases. A May 2019 Intergovernmental report says that up to a million species are endangered by human activity. Hundreds of species are currently going extinct every year. This is a low estimate, the number could be more like thousands of species. We can’t fix or replace nature but we can treat it like our home, which it is.

Mechanistic models of living are over simplifications and they take the humanity (including complexity, unpredictability, spontaneity, emotion, vitality) out of life. People talk about the mechanism of the brain. The brain is not a machine. It is a self-regulating system of neural cells that allow for information transfer by way of electrical signals. People also talk about the architecture of the brain, but again, the brain is not a design. The brain is an organ, a functional, inseparable part of a living organism. However, the brain will seem like a machine if we study it as if it is a machine and that is where the problem lies.

The economist EF Schumacher said there is two types of science (or knowledge) namely science for manipulation and science for understanding. The mechanistic worldview is the basis of science for manipulation.

The organismic view of the world

The opposite of perceiving the universe, and everything in it, as a machine is to perceive the universe as like an organism – a self-regulating system of relationships and functions. This worldview is the basis of science for understanding.

If we see the world as a living system of processes, change and movement that is an end in itself, and not as a means to an end, we will be much more inclined to understand it and live in harmony with it rather than manipulate it.