The Emergence of the Interior
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The Emergence of the Interior

Architecture, Modernity, Domesticity

Charles Rice

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Emergence of the Interior

Architecture, Modernity, Domesticity

Charles Rice

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About This Book

Taking a radical position counter to many previous histories and theories of the interior, domesticity and the home, The Emergence of the Interior considers how the concept and experience of the domestic interior have been formed from the beginning of the nineteenth century. It considers the interior's emergence in relation to the thinking of Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud, and, through case studies, in architecture's trajectories toward modernism.

The book argues that the interior emerged with a sense of 'doubleness', being understood and experienced as both a spatial and an image-based condition. Incorporating perspectives from architecture, critical history and theory, and psychoanalysis, The Emergence of the Interior will be of interest to academics and students of the history and theory of architecture and design, social history, and cultural studies.

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Part 1

Chapter 1

Irrecoverable inhabitations

Walter Benjamin and histories of the interior

Ever since the time of Louis Philippe, the bourgeois has shown a tendency to compensate for the absence of any trace of private life in the big city. He tries to do this within the four walls of his apartment. It is as if he made it a point of honour not to allow the traces of his everyday objects and accessories to get lost. Indefatigably, he takes the impression of a host of objects; for his slippers and his watches, his blankets and his umbrellas, he devises coverlets and cases. He has a marked preference for velour and plush, which preserve the imprint of all contact. In the style characteristic of the second empire, the apartment becomes a sort of cockpit. The traces of its inhabitant are moulded into the interior. Here is the origin of the detective story, which inquires into these traces and follows these tracks.1
With these lines, Walter Benjamin gives a distilled account of the fabrication and inhabitation of the bourgeois domestic interior. This interior is produced through an infolding, which Benjamin encourages one to consider literally in terms of the interior as a soft and impressionable surface. This surface does not produce a hermetic seal against the external world, but rather is activated through the inhabitant’s relation to the city and its world of publicness, business and commerce, and enables a subjectivity and a social identity marked ‘bourgeois’ to be supported artefactually. The impressionable surface holds on to the artefacts liberated from the world of commodities and interiorized for the securing of a private life; the surface folds to encase the inhabitant and these collected objects. The indefatigable collector understands that such a fabrication of the interior is a continual process, a set of techniques and practices that ensure the ongoing viability of a self. Yet the traces registered on the interior’s impressionable surface also position the inhabiting subject in a constricting sense. Such traces imply detection, and the detective inevitably begins an investigation at the discovery of a dead body.2
This chapter reads the historical emergence of the interior through the writings of Benjamin, focusing primarily on The Arcades Project. It aims to expand upon Benjamin’s often gnomic pronouncements, and then focus his thinking in terms of two sets of issues concerning the study of the interior. The first set has to do with the evidence the interior furnishes for historical study. The trace of the inhabitant, caught as it is between securing a private identity, and positioning the subject within frames of detection and governance, suggests that one cannot assume its transparency to something like a stable or true essence of bourgeois private life. Indeed, the supposed stability offered by the interior is a reaction to the alienation and disjunctions of the modernizing city, as well as being complicit with the forms of surveillance and governance produced by and through the city. In this way, the trace has effects both within the historical context of bourgeois domesticity, and in the way one may have access to it as a historical context. As an extension of these issues, a second line of investigation engages with the status of the nineteenth century against an ever-shifting context of the present. Emerging through Benjamin’s account of the bourgeois domestic interior is a philosophy of history that reveals critical and illuminating discontinuities in the movement of historical time.
The resources for thinking developed in this reading of Benjamin are used to critique the ways in which historical studies of the interior, privacy and domesticity have been conventionally conceived. These studies have tended to confuse the constricted, mortified inhabitant with its counterpart, the private individual who is supposed to ‘live on’ through history. Following Benjamin’s own historical treatment of the interior, it will be shown that while the effects of the interior’s emergence are felt in palpable ways in the present, it is not because of its progressive, stylistic development, or because of the continuity of its inhabiting subject.

The short historical life of the bourgeois domestic interior

‘Against the armature of glass and iron, upholstery offers resistance with its textiles.’3 In this single line, embedded within the voluminous text of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, arcade and domestic interior come together. This coming together is, however, arranged around a point of resistance. Arcades offer a structural armature and a hardness of material finish that upholstery and textiles resist in their stuffing and covering. Arcades figure the wedded advance of technology and commerce, the emblem of the modernizing city; upholstery and textiles figure the domestic interior as a site of refuge from the city and its new, alienating forms of experience. Yet this resistance heightens their mutual entanglement. Benjamin writes of arcades themselves as kinds of interiors in the city, spaces that reorganize relations between inside and outside: ‘The domestic interior moves outside. . . . The street becomes room and the room becomes street.’ And: ‘Arcades are houses or passages having no outside – like the dream.’4
In producing The Arcades Project as a fragmentary history of the nineteenth century, a history of discontinuity, Benjamin recognized a productive instability in the emergent concept of the interior, and in its associated concepts such as dwelling and domesticity:
The difficulty in reflecting on dwelling: on the one hand, there is something age-old – perhaps eternal – to be recognized here, the image of that abode of the human being in the maternal womb; on the other hand, this motif of primal history notwithstanding, we must understand dwelling in its most extreme form as a condition of nineteenth-century existence.5
Benjamin’s difficulty in reflecting on dwelling is the difficulty in capturing the eternal conception of dwelling as a precise historical condition of the nineteenth century. While arcades embody technological, commercial and spatial developments of the nineteenth century – developments which, precisely framed in terms of technological progress, become radically old from the perspective of the twentieth century – dwelling appears to stand outside of time, unfolding eternally and naturally within the interior. Yet one might also think of the resistance offered by the interior’s upholstery and textiles as a necessary response to the emergence of the arcades, and the effects of the modernizing city that they imply. This is a resistance which does not guarantee the eternal in dwelling, however much this might have been a desire prevalent in the nineteenth century. It suggests, rather, the opposite: a specific and contingent formation which defined the interior as the setting for bourgeois domesticity. In this way, one should think of the bourgeois interior as having a short historical life, or, more properly, a ‘natural’ lifespan equal to that of the arcades. The interior is born, matures and dies out within the span of the nineteenth century. This is the thrust of Benjamin’s thinking in his two exposés (of 1935 and 1939) which offer a synopsis of The Arcades Project.6 Each contains a section on the interior, giving an account of its emergence and liquidation within the span of that century. Following the exposé of 1939, the major aspects of this account will be given.

Interiorization and experience

The quotation at the beginning of this chapter is the key section of the exposé that describes the interior’s historical emergence. For the bourgeoisie, dwelling became divided from work, and in this division, the conditions for the emergence of the domestic interior were made possible. In Benjamin’s thinking, this division was allied to a problematization in modernity of the philosophical conception of experience.
Long experience (Erfahrung), founded on an appeal and a connection to tradition, and the accumulation of wisdom over time, comes into conflict with the multitude of momentary, instantaneous experiences (Erlebnisse) that contribute to the dynamic energy of the modern city. The city alienates long experience; its refuge, and the context for its amplification, is the domestic interior. Benjamin captured this problematization in his 1936 essay ‘Experience and Poverty’:
Everyone knew precisely what experience was: older people had always passed it on to younger ones. It was handed down in short form to sons and grandsons, with the authority of age, in proverbs; with an often longwinded eloquence, as tales, sometimes as stories from foreign lands, at the fireside. – Where has it all gone?7
The interior’s emergence became important in relation to the idea that long experience might somehow be wrested from objects, that what was carried in the immateriality of the proverb might, under certain conditions, be provided in a material substitute, that the hearth and its mantelpiece might materially encode the mythical fireside and the situation it provided for the telling of stories. In this way, fabricating and thereby inhabiting an interior was an active, ongoing process, one manifested in Benjamin’s account through the figure of the collector. The collector was not one who was simply sealed away in the interior. Rather, this figure negotiated the problematic of experience, realizing that its long and momentary forms were ultimately two sides of the same coin.
The challenge faced by the collector as Benjamin’s ‘true resident’ of the interior was to bestow a ‘connoisseur’s value’, rather than a ‘use value’, on objects, thereby to ‘[delight] in evoking . . . a world in which, to be sure, human beings are no better provided with what they need than in the real world, but in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful’.8 This drudgery associated with things was consequent upon the rise of commodity exchange through the nineteenth century, a story which has had many tellings. The account of Christoph Asendorf will act as a guide, since it is particularly concerned with elucidating the relation between the object and experience within the rise of commodity exchange.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, industrial modes of production replaced individual handicraft and workshop modes. The consequent division of labour ‘causes the relation between producers and things to lose its basis in repetitive experience, continuity, and an overview of the entire process of production. The new relation that ensues, one already evident in the workshop, is based on partial experience’.9 Objects once experienced in their totality through the bond between maker and user (‘traditionally’ the same person) now circulated as abstract entities, stripped of all qualities that were once derived from an embeddedness in time and place (a locality designated by community as Gemeinschaft ), and a natural necessity of production and use. The experience of the shift in commodity production and circulation reflected the rise in significance of momentary experiences, consequent upon the modernity of industrialization and urbanization. Referring to Robert Musil, Asendorf suggests how these momentary experiences of the metropolitan world (designated by culture as Gesellschaft ) themselves circulated freely, without requiring a subject to experience them.10 The man-as-subject was thus also left ‘without qualities’.
The fate of objects-become-commodities is that they begin to repossess the categories they seemingly obliterated: they produce a new nature and begin to have their own social relations. As Asendorf suggests: ‘Commodities embody the abstract as materiality, as a natural quality of things.’11 He also recalls Marx:
the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour: because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.12
Asendorf’s argument suggests that objects as commodities embodied experience as Erlebnis in solid, physical form.13 It is worth arguing, further, that the domestic interior offered the site where the ‘social life of things’ could be domesticated in a way that was thought to provide compensation for their stripping of qualities away from bourgeois subjects. Objects as commodities could be wrenched from circulation, ‘freed from the drudgery of being useful’, becoming embedded in the interior to produce a conscious, ‘new nature’ of domesticity, one that offered an illusion that long experience could be maintained in the interior.

The labour of collecting

Objects become domesticated via the collection. Susan Stewart has located the collection as the final stage of alienation, where the labour of production completed its transmutation into a labour of consumption. She writes:
What is the proper labour of the consumer? It is a labour of total magic, a fantastic labour which operates through the manipulation of abstraction rather than through concrete or material means. Thus . . . the collection presents a metaphor of ‘production’ not as ‘the earned’ but as ‘the captured’. . . . The collection says that the world is given; we are inheritors, not producers of value here. We ‘luck into’ the collection; it might attach itself to particular scenes of acquisition, but the integrity of those scenes is subsumed to the transcendent and ahistorical context of the collection itself.14
The interior is the context that allows the collector to capture the commodity, and to become entwined with it. This capturing or domestication takes place through various ‘particular scenes of acquisition’. But Stewart also suggests: ‘The collection is not constructed by its elements; rather, it comes to exist by means of its principle of organization.’15 Through this organization, one refers to the collection as finished, the subjectivity constructed through it looking back retrospectively at the narrative of the self built through and into the collection’s organization. In Stewart’s argument, this narrative replaces a narrative of history; in its classifications, the collection is ahistorical. Yet she qualifies somewhat her earlier statement that the collection is not earned but captured by asserting that the serial manner in which a collection is acquired ‘provides a means for defining or classifying the collection and the collector’s life history, and it also permits a systematic substitution of purchase for labour. “Earning” the collection simply involves waiting, creating the pauses that articulate the biography of the collector.’ 16 While this provides a strong argument for the subject’s motivation to collect – collection refashions an alienated self through alienation’s final mechanism – Stewart’s claim for the ahistorical nature of the collection itself produces a linear concept of its serial acquisition, a history that is the biography of the collector.
Yet the possibility of a collapse in the structural integrity of the collection, or an opening out beyond its supposed structure, reveals the shortcomings in such a linear concept of acquisition. It produces a slippage in the integrity of the collection, and thus in the collector’s subjectivity. Recognizing this possibility, Stewart recounts the story of a rare book collector who discovered that there existed another copy of a book he possessed and thought to be unique. The man purchased this other copy from its owner at an extraordinary price and promptly destroyed it.17 This was not an acquisition per se, but an action that attempted to repair the organizing principle of the collection (uniqueness), and thus retrospectively make sense of an earlier acquisition.
Benjamin’s thoughts on the collection become significant at this point, especially since some of them were articulated in terms of...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Illustration Credits
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. Introduction
  7. Part 1 Orientations
  8. Part 2 Trajectories
  9. Conclusion
  10. Notes
  11. Bibliography
Citation styles for The Emergence of the Interior

APA 6 Citation

Rice, C. (2006). The Emergence of the Interior (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2006)

Chicago Citation

Rice, Charles. (2006) 2006. The Emergence of the Interior. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Rice, C. (2006) The Emergence of the Interior. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Rice, Charles. The Emergence of the Interior. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2006. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.