After Comfort: A User’s Guide - Marc Angélil and Cary Siress - The Urgency of Stewardship

The Urgency of Stewardship

Marc Angélil and Cary Siress

Photograph by Roberto Collovà of the house in Porto where Álvaro Siza spent some time recovering from his accident in 1994. Domus (May 1995). Courtesy Roberto Collovà.

After Comfort: A User’s Guide
October 2023

It’s just a question of discipline,” the Little Prince told me later on. “When you’ve finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry1

In the spring of 1994, Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza spent some time recovering from a minor accident at the home of friends in Porto. The house had everything needed to make his stay as comfortable as possible, yet something preoccupied him during his convalescence. He began to draw a parallel between his own fragile condition and that of the house itself. Sure, it was cozy and well-crafted, but it had issues, something always needed tending. Thinking about all that happens with a building once it is constructed and inhabited, Siza started writing about the ongoing give-and-take relationship between inhabitant and house.

In his short account “Viver uma casa” (“Living a House”), Siza underscored the everyday toils of maintaining the most intimate spaces of architecture, much like one would service a complex and delicate piece of machinery. In so doing, he downplayed the heroism typically attributed to design—for which he is renowned—by focusing instead on the daily care and effort required to keep a house running (or any building, for that matter). Siza suggests that the labor of upkeep, though rarely addressed in architectural discourse, amounts to a heroics of another kind.2 Despite all design intentions, nothing ever goes as planned. Everything eventually breaks down. Ultimately, whatever is there will have to be fixed.

Photographs by Roberto Collovà of the house in Porto where Álvaro Siza spent some time recovering from his accident in 1994. Domus (May 1995). Courtesy Roberto Collovà.

It Always Breaks

It is one thing to imagine a house you want to live in and have it designed according to your every wish, but it is another thing altogether to “live a house” in its fullest sense, to accept all the wear and tear of day-to-day use that makes a building what it is and will become over time. Beyond the dream of a house of one’s own, Siza’s text elevates the ups and downs of maintenance to a truly noble responsibility, whereby the inhabitants become its “guardians” and, by extension, guardians of that little part of the world. Siza opens his essay with a laundry list of sorts, depicting the house as a veritable “inhabited machine,” yet one made of parts that need tending.3 He writes:

The idea I have of a house is that of a complicated machine, in which something breaks down every day: a lamp, a faucet, a drain, a lock, a hinge, a socket; and then the heater, the stove, the refrigerator, the television, or the video player; and after that, the washing machine, the fuses, the curtain springs, or the security bolts of the doors. The roof leaks; the neighbor’s pipes have burst; a rooftile has fallen off; and the waterproofing has come loose. And no doubt the gutter is full of leaves, its brackets loose and rotten.[footnote Álvaro Siza’s 1994 essay “Viver uma casa,” originally written in Portuguese, was newly translated in English by Marc Angélil and Cary Siress and published under the title “Living a House.” See Marc Angélil et al., Flux Redux: 9 Sites of Experimentation in Stocks and Flows (Zurich: Park Books, 2023), 300-305.]

Siza’s diagnosis of a house’s constant need for care lays bare the shadow side of “cozy” and “comfortable.” Though the dream of an ideal house might remain, the ease of use and the wellbeing expected rely on a plethora of things—ordinary objects, technical apparatuses, architectural constructions, and so forth—that ultimately break down and need attention. Accordingly, Siza’s account proceeds by pointing out that to “live a house” brings with it the added effort of cleaning up and restoring some part of the constructed realm. Coordinated practices of care are required to maintain a building’s very habitability.

Siza’s essay first appeared in a 1995 edition of Domus, accompanied by photographs of the house where he spent time recovering.4 The backyard is well-groomed. In the living room, everything is in its place. The house seems to have all that is needed to enjoy domestic life: a fireplace, stereo, TV, plants, and designer chair included. But there are also photographs of the service spaces required to sustain a comfortable sense of at-homeness, such as the garage with an extra refrigerator, ample storage space, and room for a vintage car, along with a boiler room somewhere in the basement full of pipes, tools, and cleaning supplies. For most readers, the latter, more prosaic images of the support systems of home life might have come as a surprise, for such stuff usually does not make it into print in design magazines showing the good life. Nevertheless, Siza’s exposé on the dependency of front and back of house underscores the vital distinction between living in a house and living a house in its truest sense.

Over and above the everyday maintenance of a house, his text in a broader sense suggests that all those technical systems servicing buildings and maintaining standards of comfort will inevitably need to be repaired, particularly in view of their relatively short life spans compared to that of the house or building. What compounds this issue is that, in the future, there will most likely be even more technology brought in to moderate more extreme conditions, and just as likely there will be even more breakdowns to repair. Considering the fragility of all the hardware that enables us to inhabit human-made environments, Siza—anticipating what would be called “the repair society”—essentially raises a question that is even more pressing today: are we not in constant repair mode with every issue we face?5

Siza, 1981, sketches of Le Corbusier’s La Petite Maison on Lake Geneva used to illustrate later versions of Siza’s essay “Viver uma casa.” Courtesy Álvaro Siza.

Environmental Repair

Subsequent publications of Siza’s reflections on the house in Porto were illustrated with sketches he made in the early 1980s while visiting Le Corbusier’s La Petite Maison on Lake Geneva.6 The house Le Corbusier realized for his mother was built some 100 years ago (1923–24), and has since been repeatedly transformed, upgraded, restored, and even outfitted with a new facade and an addition on the roof. Here again, a modest dwelling lives through numerous iterations of maintenance, mending, and modification. One cannot help but wonder if the chimney for the oil-burning furnace in the original design will be kept as an item of architectural heritage from a bygone era or removed when a more ecologically-sound system is installed.

Looking more closely at Siza’s sketches, what appears to be a bucolic setting—lake in the foreground and mountains beyond—is actually a machine à habiter, simply at another scale. The Swiss landscape can be interpreted as a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. Though picture-perfect, the Alps are machines in and of themselves, replete with military installations, transportation networks, tourist resorts, and infrastructure for generating and distributing power (hydroelectric dams, pumping stations, wind farms, transmission lines, and the like). Multiple water treatment plants ensure that lake water is clean, so that it can in turn increasingly be used as thermal storage via countless heat pumps serving houses and other buildings in surrounding communities. Somewhere out of view in Siza’s sketches are the expansive logistical arteries of one of Switzerland’s largest metropolitan regions: another well-tuned machine operating with clockwork precision, though far from sustainable.

Photographs by Roberto Collovà of the house in Porto where Álvaro Siza spent some time recovering from his accident in 1994. Domus (May 1995). Courtesy Roberto Collovà.

Extrapolating from Siza’s essay, one could argue that buildings such as La Petite Maison—or the Porto house, for that matter—are embedded within machinic urban landscapes. These human-machine environments are literally plugged into broader apparatuses and networks, representing elementary components of a machine-environment for living in. Siza’s call for “living a house”—and, by extension, for “living the environment”—underscores the essential commitment required to sustain any habitat, big or small, newly built or already in place, human-made or otherwise. He makes clear that “matters of care” are more than just a choice, as if to say that care, maintenance, and repair are in-built responsibilities of inhabitation of any kind.7

In principle, matters of care should extend to the planet we dwell on and not be limited to our immediate spaces of comfort. Needless to say, much effort has been made to align demands for comfort with this need for care. New technical systems that form entirely new material assemblages are increasingly being rolled out to reduce building emissions. Hybrid collectors, energy exchangers, geothermal probes, heat pumps, floor coils, decentralized ventilation systems, carbon dioxide sensors, digital monitoring systems, and the like are all aimed at optimizing comfort while mitigating the impact of architecture on the environment. Although such measures are well-intended, a critical question remains regarding how sustainable a building’s internal hardware really is. Over and above having to be maintained, these systems will have to be replaced again and again as the technology inevitably fails. The issue of comfort seems to have placed us in a vicious cycle of seeking out the next innovation in sustainable-but-comfort-producing technologies that bring with them yet more matters to care for, not to mention more so-called externalities to contend with. It is high time to turn the equation around and make caring for Earth’s environment a precondition of comfort: its very necessity, not an afterthought.

Conceptually speaking, architects have come a long way: from the house as a machine, to the house as a machine in the garden, to the garden as a machine for living in, now scaled to the entire planet itself. But considering the current state of the environment, our terrestrial habitat is in need of repair at all scales. Affirming what should be obvious, the obligation to steward our habitat should become all the more binding. Though written some decades ago, Siza’s short reflection on a house’s need for care bears particularly heavily on our ill-fitted relationship to the built and natural environment today, that is, on our relationship to the world we have made and the world we inhabit. It is this relationship itself that is long in need of repair and, though widely acknowledged, that is not being tended to as one would a home.


Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, translated by Richard Howard (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1971), 15.


A notable exception is Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise on architecture De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building), written between 1443 and 1452, which takes up the question of a building’s upkeep in Book X, entitled Restoration of Buildings. The book reads as an instruction manual on what to avoid when building anew to minimize damage and on how to maintain a structure.


For more on the expression “inhabited machine” and its origins in the 18th and 19th century, see Moritz Gleich, Inhabited Machines: Genealogy of an Architectural Concept (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2023).


Álvaro Siza, translated in Italian as “Vivere una casa,” with photographs by Roberto Collovà, Domus (May 1995): 94-97.


The expression “repair society” was coined by cultural heritage historian Wilfried Lipp in his essay “Rettung von Geschichte für die Reparaturgesellschaft im 21. Jahrhundert,” ICONOS – Hefte des Deutschen Nationalkomitees: Das Denkmal als Altlast? Auf dem Weg in die Reparaturgesellschaft 21 (1996): 143-151. For a reprint of Lipp’s essay, see Arch+: The Great Repair 250 (2023): 44-49.


See, for example, Álvaro Siza: Writings on Architecture, Antonio Angelillo, ed. (Milan: Skira Editore, 1997), 47.


For the concept of “care as an everyday practice,” see Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, “Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things,” Social Studies of Science 41, no. 1 (2011): 98. For more on the subject matter, see Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

After Comfort: A User’s Guide is a project by e-flux Architecture in collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney, the Technical University of Munich, the University of Liverpool, and Transsolar.

Architecture, Technology, Urbanism
Environment, Sustainability
Return to After Comfort: A User’s Guide

Marc Angélil is a practicing architect and urban designer at agps architecture, a firm with ateliers in Los Angeles and Zurich.

Cary Siress is an architect and Senior Researcher in Territorial Organization.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.