What follows was originally published by Jordan Bishop on Forbes here.
The Changing Face Of Home
Written by Jordan Bishop
n Friday and Saturday summer afternoons, Jan Piepenbrock sits cross-legged on a stool on the sidewalk along Königsallee, Düsseldorf’s busiest shopping street. Lining fifty yards of sidewalk to his right are abstract paintings measuring four feet high by six feet wide. Piepenbrock wears an all-white track suit and steampunk sunglasses, and doesn’t say anything to passersby. He merely sits, the hint of a smile visible in both corners of his mouth, and waits. 20,000 people walk by each Friday, and 20,000 people walk by each Saturday.
Unbeknownst to most of these passersby, each of the dozen or more paintings Piepenbrock has on display will sell for several thousand euros apiece. Piepenbrock speaks with only a few people each day, yet he’ll find a new client, maybe two, each weekend that he sits. His average sale is two or more paintings per client, so he has good reason for that subtle smile. On a slow sales weekend, Piepenbrock will pull in five thousand euros; on a good one, ten thousand or more.
Yet Piepenbrock’s smile can only grow when you learn the magic of his backstory: he only lives in Düsseldorf three months of each year. For the other nine months per year, he resides in a beautiful artist space in Pai, a tiny town in the northern Thai mountains, a few hours from Chiang Mai. He paints from Thailand as well, which explain the several hundred canvases strewn across his lofty abode, and he credits his consistent creative capacities to this lifestyle choice. “I surround myself with the world’s beauty, and it comes out in my work. I may return to Germany each year, but there’s no question in my mind: Thailand is home.”
Our homes grant us permission to think, to explore, and to act in specific ways. For Piepenbrock, home is the place that stimulates his creativity, allowing him to paint unabashedly. Home is where he can be himself without wearing the mask society tells us to adorn. Home is his sense of flow. Not everyone feels the same way, though.
Ask a dozen people about their conception of home and you’re likely to get a dozen distinct answers. For Olivia Graham, a Rochester, New York-born international development student completing her Master’s thesis in Amsterdam, a place needs to invoke feelings of former homes for it to adopt the title itself. Nostalgia. Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen, the co-founder of Copenhagen’s Norm Architects, explains, “A home needs to be a sanctuary, a place where I can totally relax, unwind and forget about what’s outside.” Escape. For others still, it simply needs to bear friendly faces, whether those faces are of new connections or old ones. Affection.
The thought persists, then: do we create our homes, or do our homes create us? When we truly think we’ve found home, have we? Or have we simply discovered a physical manifestation of those things that make us comfortable?
Most importantly: is there a difference between the two?
Over the course of this five-part series, we’ll dive into the lives of people all around the world whose stories shed light on this exact question. We’ll meet two San Francisco roommates whose struggles to pay next month’s rent led to a radical transformation in how the world travels today. We’ll meet a pair of artists in Berlin who have blurred the lines between their private living space and a public work space with astonishing results. And we’ll step back and examine the truly momentous ways in which the traditional concept of home is transcending physical boundaries and connecting the hearts of people worldwide like never before.
I call this series: The Changing Face Of Home.
ake a fist with both hands. Then, put your knuckles together as though your hands were punching each other. Flare your elbows out to the side. That’s how wide it is.” That’s how Daniel, a Master’s of Architecture student from London, illustrates the width of his studio apartment in Hong Kong’s desirable Sai Ying Pun neighborhood. The place would make for a pretty dismal walk-in closet, given that, at twenty-two square feet, it’s smaller than a double bed.
“Needless to say, I don’t spend much time in there,” Daniel says, laughing. You can’t blame him.
The old real estate adage has never been truer than it is today: what matters most is location, location, location. Yet how do cities like Hong Kong, sitting on an island that’s already reclaimed much of the nearby waters as additional land space over the past two centuries, continue to offer the best locations to an ever-increasing number of potential tenants? A city like that only has two options: build higher, an extremely difficult thing to do in such a densely-packed city with virtually zero undeveloped land space, or build smaller. As Daniel showed us, Hong Kong has taken option B to the extreme.
Still, more and more people flood to Hong Kong and other “build smaller” cities with each passing year. Houston and Denver, following the lead of other North American cities like Vancouver, have recently announced micro-apartment developments will be built in their downtown cores. Amsterdam is seeing landlords cut apartments in half, opting to rent out two smaller spaces than the single larger unit that the buildings were designed to accommodate. We all know what’s happening in New York. Why do we subject ourselves to such cramped living quarters, when there are still innumerable cities that offer so much more at half the price tag or less?
The concept of home is changing before our eyes.
As our homes get smaller, we experience a mental shift. No longer does our notion of home stop when we step outside of our four walls: it continues down the street, bursts out of our neighborhood, and permeates the entire city beyond. Contrary to the houses in which many of us grew up, many modern inner-city apartments don’t come with laundry facilities, nor do they have their own private outdoor spaces. There often isn’t enough room for a big screen TV, and a studio apartment at any size just doesn’t encourage socializing at home. These activities – chores, the outdoors, movie night, social hour, and a lot more – are quickly shifting from being activities that take place within the house to activities that get us out of the house. And in so doing, our concept of home expands. When the laundry room is three blocks away, the liquor cabinet is two stops on the subway, and your favorite reading nook involves a 12-minute walk to the park, the home comes to encompass much more than what lies within our four walls.
In effect, when the space between our walls becomes smaller, our understanding of home becomes larger. Home isn’t your apartment; home is your city.
As the home navigates this transformation, from a place with defined boundaries to one that flows outward for miles, the surrounding world becomes much smaller. Questions of a change in home no longer involve decisions on an apartment-level scale, but on a city-level scale. Stepping outside of your home means taking a trip, not to the supermarket, but to the train station or airport.
As our houses shrink, our homes grow, and as our homes grow, the world around us shrinks in proportion. So when suddenly the world becomes dramatically smaller, where can you go without leaving your comfort zone? And where do you have to go in order to challenge it?
The answer for many of us is far, far away. Perhaps a better question is this: will we feel the need to come back?
n the fall of 2007, two graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design were living together in a loft in San Francisco. With next month’s rent payments looming ominously near, they decided to try something unique: creating an impromptu bed and breakfast in their living room for travelers at a reasonable fee. The concept gained legs, and nearly a decade later, the resulting business, Airbnb, is active in nearly 200 countries and is recognized nearly as ubiquitously as Facebook and Twitter.
In retrospect, many consider Airbnb to be the lead domino in sparking the sharing economy, which has given rise to subsequent unicorns like Uber, Taskrabbit, and Instacart. On top of these impressive startups, many other great things have come from the sharing economy: markets have found truer equilibria, waste has been drastically reduced, and new human connections are being made in places they’ve never been made before. Such connections include the ones being made here in Berlin, where Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, a pair of contemporary artists, approach the concepts of public and private space from a completely new angle: by combining their private residence and public studio/office into a single entity.
The business partners purchased the space, a converted water pumping station in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood, more than a decade ago, and they have up to a dozen people come through it on any given day. One step inside reveals the home’s spacious, bright appeal; it’s no wonder the two men chose it as their abode. The kitchen and living rooms, both simply furnished, function as impromptu meeting areas, and though there are technically no off-limits zones in the home, non-residents using it as an office or studio generally respect the space’s mixed usage. An air of calm resides there, but not to a disarming extent. In a word, ‘comfortable’ is a fitting sketch.
In an interview for The Kinfolk Home, Elmgreen and Dragset display their optimism around the osmosis of private and public spaces. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of showing our desires, perversions, neuroses or banalities. A home should be a place that reflects your personal taste – an environment that’s crafted by the inhabitant.” When asked how such a unique home environment has influenced their own way of thinking, they reply, “Having more public exposure in our private sphere teaches us to be less fearful and less vain.” Still, when it comes to a large-scale convergence of private and public spaces, we’re hurtling into territory we don’t nearly understand.
The more we travel, the more we come to appreciate that contrast between private and public spaces. No matter whether you’re in central Manhattan or on a far-flung island in the Philippines, there’s something to be said for a space that’s uniquely yours, even if your ownership of it is only temporary. When you rent on Airbnb, that space is yours, even if it’s just for the night.
Yet at the same time, more travel also proves to us that the world is a small, small place. We ask ourselves, “Why should I be so protective over my tiny shell of possessions when I could drop them all and move across the globe tomorrow?” This fresh-start option is one that has consistently gained steam, and it serves to disconnect our possessions with our identity: we are still ourselves, even without our things.
On top of that, the traveler’s mindset is one of sharing, largely out of necessity. Anyone who’s spent considerable time abroad knows the inherent give and take that arises with others in similar shoes, both physically and emotionally, and that frame of thinking pervades far after you return home. Travelers initially surrender their privacy because it helps them to form connections, acquire items they need, and more, but they continue living more openly because they experience the merits of a less private lifestyle firsthand.
These two together – a sharing mindset, combined with the realization that the world is a very small place – fuel the core tenet of the sharing economy itself: happiness stems from experiences, not possessions. And viewed that way, you can easily see how business models like Airbnb’s are autocatalytic. The more their business grows, the fewer barriers there are for people to travel. Similarly, the more we travel, the more their business flourishes. It’s a never-ending cycle of the nearly unnoticeable shift toward forming many connections over just a few, opting for novelty over routine, and pursuing experiences over things.
History has proven it time and again: changes in our physical world are leading indicators of changes in our mental one. As we open up our physical spaces, we subconsciously open up our mental spaces as well, and while the physical shift is one we can easily hit the Back button on, the mental shift is much more persistent. Which brings us back to the principal question at hand: are the private pieces of our lives becoming too public?
The four walls around us each night have always served as our escape from the world. If we give those walls up, will we lose our ability to escape along with them?
n increasing number of people, many of them millennials, are leaving the places they grew up in favor of a mobile lifestyle. They live everywhere and nowhere for short (think days) or extended (think months) periods of time, whatever suits them at that moment. Mostly relying on the Internet to make their living, many of them have embraced the term digital nomads to encapsulate their lifestyle. CM Patha, a Canadian-born author who herself has spent time living all over the world, calls them roamers.
In her book, Roaming: Living and Working Abroad in the 21st Century, Patha speaks to Hsin, who spent the first 20 years of her life living in Taiwan. When Hsin moved to Boulder, Colorado to finish her undergraduate studies, something clicked for her: “It was like I was finally back in my own element,” she says. It was her first time in Boulder, but the city and its inhabitants gave her the feeling of home immediately. Living in Germany now, Hsin reminisces fondly upon her time spent in Boulder.
Hannah Ferrara, a jewelry designer based in Portland, knows how Hsin feels. In an interview with Rachel Eva Lim, she explains how moving to Portland from the East Coast opened up entirely new volumes of what it means for a place to be a home. “People can live somewhere their whole lives without truly feeling at home, and then stay somewhere for a week and feel it right away. The West Coast is filled with components we didn’t even realize we were lacking until we moved here, and I’m thankful for the chance to experience this definition of home.” For many, a sense of home isn’t something that comes easy.
Yet such comfort comes about in different ways. There’s something to be said for the comforts that a familiarity of surroundings provides – eating from the same plates, resting your head on the same pillow, and so forth – yet more and more, as our physical world becomes digitized, many of those items can travel with us. The books, music, and movies that once occupied entire shelving units now hide away on our hard drives. The physical perils of moving have been largely removed, leaving only mental barriers to acclimatizing to a new home. If you don’t believe it, just put yourself in these shoes for a moment.
You roll out of bed, practice ten minutes of yoga, and grab a quick shower before starting your day. Scrolling through the morning’s news, you head to the coffee shop around the corner from your office, spend the afternoon there, and decide to try out a new dinner place within walking distance before retiring at home for the evening.
All in all, a pretty unremarkable day, right? Now think of the same day through this lens.
You roll out of bed at your Airbnb, practice ten minutes of yoga using Headspace, and grab a quick shower before starting your day. Scrolling through the morning’s news on Flipboard, you use Foursquare to find a coffee shop around the corner from your Breather/co-working space, spend the afternoon there, and check Foursquare again to recommend a new dinner place within walking distance from your Airbnb before retiring at home for the evening.
The day is the exact same, yet all of a sudden it’s become a cookie cutter, a mere rote ready to be rinsed and repeated in any number of hundreds of cities around the world. Regardless of where we are, the digitization of the world allows us to acclimatize so quickly that the friction of moving cities has been nearly completely eliminated. Our daily routines require little more than ourselves and our iPhones, thrusting an immense power into our hands.
In that sense, Hsin and Hannah know it as well as anyone. Home is shifting from a physical place to a mental one, the culmination of a collection of feelings best described by comfort, relaxation, and safety. How will we capitalize on it?
he homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like [strategy consultant Igor] Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.”
That’s a quote from Kyle Chayka’s essay, “Welcome to AirSpace: How Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic across the world”. Chayka describes how our tastes, influenced by app recommendation engines that he collectively characterizes as “AirSpace”, are being nudged toward a central mean that’s bland, non-localized, and utterly homogenous. “It’s possible to travel all around the world and never leave AirSpace, and some people don’t,” Chayka says. “AirSpace is their home.”
He’s completely right. A single glance at Instagram reveals how quickly, and widely, sameness spreads online today: a new hairstyle gaining popularity in Tokyo suddenly appears on every twenty-something’s head in LA the following week. Yet while this shift toward uniformity has certainly been accelerated by the Internet, its roots stem back to far earlier times. In their essay “Homogeneity of urban biotopes and similarity of landscape design language in former colonial cities” published in Ecology of Cities and Towns: A Comparative Approach, authors Maria E. Ignatieva and Glenn H. Stewart depict how English settlers have, “Made themselves at home in these new lands by making it like home.” The pair continue: “European grasses spread to picket fences, roses and lilacs bloomed in North American yards, primroses and other English flowers by Australian and New Zealand homes. In parks from New York to Sydney walked on European grass growing in imitation English meadows, and the commonest birds they saw were starlings, pigeons and English sparrows. In rural areas, European crops filled the fields and European weeds the roadside ditches.”
Clearly, there’s something deep within us that enjoys experiencing the comforts we’re accustomed to. Regardless of how good the food is when you’re abroad, there’s always at least a subtle, fleeting desire for the dishes you grew up eating. The question is why. Why do we feel the need to bring our history along with us, even when it’s contextually inappropriate and completely unnecessary? North America already had its own grasses, flowers and birds before the English arrived, so why did they still feel the need to bring their own?
In the concluding paragraph of that same piece, Ignatieva and Stewart offer a warning: “But now, this spreading social and ecological homogeneity in urban environments is recognised as dangerous and ending in loss of native biodiversity and general local identity.” In other words, transplanting your former home to a new geography is not the answer. That method of thinking didn’t apply then, and it certainly doesn’t apply now.
We travel because of how the world changes from place to place, not in spite of it. To supplant the values and qualities of one place with those of another is not only misguided, it’s fraudulent. It’s precisely at the point when everywhere looks the same that the last ounce of utility and pleasure is removed from the once-majestic pastime of travel.
The notion that home is an individual abstraction, not a physical location, is no longer just theory. Our homes adapt as we do because our homes are within us, not external to us. We’ve all heard it a dozen times, yet perhaps that age-old axiom holds more weight than most of us give it credit for. As we continue to move, to explore more of the world and of ourselves, to push the boundaries of which pieces of our lives are private and which are public, and to eliminate the frivolities that tie us down from doing the things we love, it only rings truer.
Home is where the heart is. And that’s wherever you choose it to be.
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