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Imagining a House Where Domestic Labor Is Automated

Grace Quah, a graduate student of architecture, imagines a house that would drastically reduce the domestic labor attributed to women while also making it visible.

Late last year, Frances Gabe, the creator of the world’s only self-cleaning home, passed away at the age of 101. The errantly charming artist, sculptor, and inventor should’ve been famous. In 1984, after receiving a patent from the US government, Gabe built a home in Newberg, Oregon, that washed itself: spray nozzles in the ceilings, floors sloped for drainage, a cupboard that was both dish container and dishwasher. She’d grown tired of the pain of housework, bending down to clean and scrubbing at tiny stains. “Stoop, stoop, stooping is stupid,” she once said in a short TV program about the house.

Still from Grace Quah’s Silvertown Plug-in (all images courtesy Grace Quah)

Grace Quah, a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture who works in design, writing, and film, recently posted a link to Gabe’s obituary on her Twitter — Gabe’s death was not publicized until last month — adding, “Basically my final year masters project 50 years ago, no one has built a self-cleaning house since Gabe’s.” Quah’s project, “Silvertown Plug-in — a spatial critique of domestic labour,” is a film set in 2034, in London’s industrial Silvertown neighborhood. There, Jetsons-style homes contain automated appliances built right into their walls, drastically reducing the domestic labor attributed to women and also making it visible.

Still from Grace Quah’s “Silvertown Plug-in”

“Spaces are not gender neutral,” Quah told Dezeen. “Silvertown Plug-in” begins with statistics: On average, women (still) carry out 60% more unpaid work than men. “Even an efficiency expert would be staggered by the amount of chasing around … that the little woman takes as a matter of course,” says a male voice, a disembodied ghost from 1950s television advertisements. He compares a woman running up the stairs, carrying laundry, to a climbing vine; her jaunt would leave a “mountaineer gasping for breath.” Enter “Silvertown Plug-In”: In the project’s description, Quah explains that, “capitalizing on the untapped £1.1 trillion value of domestic labour to the UK economy, the masterplan is a communal housing scheme that performs housework. As a critique of the relationship between technology and architecture, everyday kitchen products become an architectural language.”

Still from Grace Quah’s “Silvertown Plug-in”

Quah’s animated pink homes are fully automated, transporting food to plates to table, steaming clothing, and providing comfy nooks for sundry items. The mid-century, space-age devices throughout the home move with robotic efficiency, but their language, so to speak, is rather humanoid, as if the house were alive. Nadya Krupska, a fictional “Resident of the Silvertown Automated Housing Association,” likens her home to a human: “Sometimes, it feels it has a mind of its own … Although I love to be taken care of.” She details instances in which the house becomes “angry,” memorizes her dietary preferences, and suggests healthy food options. Attentive, detail-oriented, and temperamental, the house is not dissimilar — stereotypically — to a woman.

Still from Grace Quah’s “Silvertown Plug-in”

It’s a wonder that technology hasn’t fully addressed the exigencies required, the “invisible” work (usually carried out by women), to maintain a clean home. In Gabe’s obituary, Margalit Fox recalls that in a 1981 issue of The Baltimore Sun, the inventor expressed her frustration with the inherent sexism of modern home design — that it presumed, in its very architecture, women would take care of it. “You can talk all you like about women’s liberation,” she said, “but houses are still designed so women have to spend half their time on their knees or hanging their head in a hole.” In Quah’s project, women, like men, are treated to cooked meals and clean clothes, automatically mothered. Perhaps all homes ought to take care of themselves. Stooping would be too difficult for a man, anyway.

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