The capsule-apartment as an illusory quest for independence (and individualisation)

by Jesper Magnusson

Lieven de Cauter draws on the fragility of the human body when he introduces the concept of encapsulation (de Cauter 2004), which is an intriguing perspective on built space. We simply need the support from a variety of technologies and material devices to protect our delicate bodies. Architecture sometimes is denoted as a third skin, a shelter – basically a climate protection. In addition to that, architectural space, or capsule as de Cauter sometimes labels it, also form a protection from the social, from others and the indirect presence of others (smells, sounds and distant visual appearance).

A growing part of private resources (money) appear to be invested in the material capacity to control the level of contact between the individual and the public society. The more resources an individual accumulates the more he/she seems to invest in the filter to the common, in devices that regulate the level of interaction with others. Sloterdijk frame this phenomenon in the context of apartment housing, referring to Corbusier’s concept “psychic ventilation”:

“An architecturally successful living unit does not just represent a piece of enclosed air, but rather a psychosocial immune system that is capable of regulating the degree to which it is sealed from the outside on demand.” (Sloterdijk 2007)

This notion has an obvious bearing on issues of exclusion, class and segregation. The most apparent examples of that is: gentrified and homogenised neighbourhoods, a growing state and private surveillance, apartment tower blocks with controlled and policed access, walled private homes, increased retail security with entrance guards, etc. Even in regular middle class areas the level of unintentional interaction with strangers are controlled by means of home security systems, neighbourhood signs declaring zones of surveillance, fences, walls etc.

The apartment/capsule can be regarded as a material quest for individual independence – a spatial urge to master ones own, private life. The apartment-concept is indeed boosting our desire for individuality, as Sloterdijk advocates, but its significance as a fortress might have an even more profound impact on society as a common ground – contesting the city as a civic space for exchange. As Lieven de Cauter puts it:

” …fear leads to capsularization, and capsularization enhances fear.” (de Cauter 2004)

Sloterdijk claims that even outside or in-between the apartments we maintain an inner-worldly individualism using Ego-technical apparati, like head sets, cell phones, small screen computers etc. to control the level of social exchange with others (Sloterdijk 2007). De Cauter comments this relation between humans and high-tech media as virtual or mental encapsulation. He identifies the digital media devices, expressively the screens, as extensions of the mind, as the car is a capsular extension of the house (de Cauter 2004). De Cauter argues further that the capsular society evokes a historic view on public space as something outside, something potentially dangerous:

”The capsular civilization might be a return to older phases in history, in which public space – the world outside the fortress – was, by definition, unsafe and uncontrolled territory.” (de Cauter 2004)

The perception of the apartment/capsule as a fortress, an individually controlled space of independence, is however an illusion. These private capsules need extensive support from a well-organized society. It is due to tremendous collective efforts we finally can experience an imaginary or fictional independence. Beyond the apartment walls we have a supportive infrastructure that cares for water supply and drainage, heating, transportation of digital and analogue information, security logistics, financial systems etc. Without the cooperative efforts to maintain this infrastructure we would very hastily have to return to a more collective life, dependent on mutual trust in others and in public life per se.

In Unité d´Habitation (Marseille) le Corbusier try to combine the effective multiplying of individual apartments (capsules) in a formal structure, with common spaces for social exchange. A generous collective space at ground level (the building is raised on piloti) is echoed at the top by a roof terrace with complex spatial structure and diversified uses. In the mid part of the building resides a street with shops, a public restaurant and a hotel. These spaces where strategically planned to raise the architecture from a mere piling of individual units (capsules) to a societal project with ambitions to create social, collective space. In modern apartment buildings this is very rarely seen. The privacy of residents and the individual right to control the filter to the outside world seems to be imperative. Unité can however be regarded as a capsule in itself, disconnected from Marseille

As a respons to the following texts:

– Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Cell Block, Ego-Spheres, Self-Container’ in Log 10, 2007 +
– Lieven de Cauter, ‘The Capsule and the Network: Notes for a General Theory’ in Capsular Civilisation: On the City in the Age of Fear, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2004
– Alice Jardine, ‘Of Bodies and Technologies’ in Hal Foster ed. Discussions in Contemporary Culture, New York: DIA Art Foundation, 1987.