Venice Juxtaposition (or the Smart Home Time Capsule)

Juxtapose. A fancy word from the art world, putting incompatible things together to create a contrast effect. Think Baz Luhrmann‘s apocalypse punk Romeo and Juliet. Or Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal) displayed in prestigious galleries. Except, I think art types don’t even use it anymore because it smacks of intellectual wannabe-ism. With the risk of committing that particular sin, I can think of no better word than Juxtapose to describe this week’s Digital Venice-conference.

The obvious point, which few speakers failed to make, is the futuristic topic in the historic setting. Selling the merits of the “Internet of Everything” against the backdrop of 16th century frescos. If the speakers are to be believed, the IoE promises to fix generate 8,9 trillion Euro economic contribution by 2020 and fix not only jobs and growth but also provide smart homes and stop climate change. One can’t help but think whether the Internet of Everything would have helped Romeo’s and Juliet’s love troubles.

But the Venice Juxtaposition goes deeper, a few blocks from the digital event is another celebration of science and endeavour: the Architecture Biennale. The similarity is striking, technology and architecture both rely on engineering and emphasize the rational, but with mystic qualities – the great machine vs the great inspiration. For all its post-modernist claims, architecture is profoundly structuralist – something is built after all, creating order from chaos. This is also true of the internet: while it is hailed as the post-modern triumph that puts all hierarchy to an end, the further ambition is to create a new order. It is no coincidence Google defines its mission as to organise and make available the world’s information – a structuralist proposition, if there ever was one!

If my head was spinning from –isms and juxtaposition already, I stepped into the French pavilion only to find the answer I was looking for to the smart home question. Villa Arpel is the main character of Jacques Tati’s 1958 farce Mon Oncle. There, as in a time capsule, is the “smart home” and Tati’s slapstick captures all the frustration of mastering technology when he tries to put a pitcher back in to an automatic kitchen closet. Anyone who has used automatic taps in public restrooms can relate. If you thought migrating photos and contacts to your new smart phone is a nosebleed, wait till you move into the programmable house. The lady of Villa Arpel even says the line “It’s all connected” as she brags to her friends about the features.

Don’t get me wrong, I love gadgets. I love programming my Lego robot to make new tricks. I love my smart phone (Windows Mobile, if you must know). I can even say I love cloud services, only perhaps not each and every one. But the Venice Juxtaposition of technology and architecture tells me the latter has richer sources of inspiration. While technology draws mainly on engineering, science fiction and libertarian economics, architecture considers geography, topography, urban planning, ground conditions, art history, construction technology, climate, sociology, human behaviour and relationships, design patterns dating back millennia and much more. Sure, it’s an unfair and somewhat pointless exercise to compare the two, but nevertheless it’s striking that the architectural thinking is so much more inspired and nuanced than how we discuss technology. This would explain why the smart home hype is driven by the tech sector, rather than architects. Your penny might have dropped on this ages ago, but it took me a long walk along the Grand Canal to figure it out.

As I leave Venice, I pick up a copy of Time Magazine to read on the plane. It should come no surprise: The cover story is the smart home. There is no escape. The internet of everything is everywhere. Resistance is futile. Can I have my blue pill now?