Q&A: Dr. Tarsha Finney

Photo by Nicholas Walker

Dr. Tarsha Finney is an architectural urbanist, senior research tutor and program lead on the City Design MA, School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, London. As an expert in housing, cities, and urban change, Tarsha is particularly interested in exploring new models of domesticity, and the role that spatial relationships play in urban resilience and the transformation in cities.

In the lead up to ‘What is Home?’ – a week-long symposium presented in collaboration with the Royal College of Art London – MPavilion spoke with Tarsha about housing in a time of climate crisis.


MPavilion: The concept of ‘home’ is a very loaded one, subject to all kinds of social, political and commercial forces. What does the ideal home look like to you now, in 2020?

Tarsha Finney: On one level, the ideal home for me is something that can respond to an increasing desire we have for intimacy and care, for intergenerational lives, for lives that are able to accommodate human and non-human kin. Something that can support new kinds of collective lives that pool resources while working together to find solutions to issues like energy consumption and production, water, food production, and waste production and treatment.

But the problem with thinking about my ‘ideal home’ is that my domestic subjectivity is entirely cultivated within the hierarchies and the spatial arrangements of ‘home’. Within domesticity – within its spatial arrangement – I am both individualised, and I understand myself as part of a collective within the logic of the spaces of the home.

So, home is always two things: it’s a thing that exists in my imagination and drawings, and it is also the material object through which I know myself as a domestic subject. To answer a question about the ideal home now and into the future, one needs to notice what is required to create the conditions of experimentation into other possible futures. And then we need to ask ourselves: ‘who are we together?’, and: ‘who do we want to become?’. We will all fundamentally change as we change the thinking, and the model. 


MPavilion: In the midst of this unprecedented ecological crisis, what substantial forms of action do architects, urbanists and landscape architects need to take in developing housing?

Tarsha Finney: We need to recognise the limits of what we can do as professionals – the limits of our work in an industry that continues to operate as if this is business as usual. Extracting profit out of housing and urban transformation now is a problem if it is not creating the conditions of experimentation that contribute to meaningful solutions in the context of climate change.

At the same time we should notice that our disciplinary skill sets have great value. We are projective and speculative.  We are able to imagine other possible futures for others – to represent, abstract, clarify and visualise vast amounts of information currently knotted into wicked problems. We are able to work on the object in drawing, even before we begin to work on the tangible object of material. We are able to make very complex problems visible to other disciplines, wider communities, complex competing stakeholders – not even necessarily to propose solutions, but to enable others to begin to join the conversation, contribute intelligence, local specific contextual information, and speculate about who we are together on the occasion of this problem.


MPavilion: How important a factor is privacy in the designing of domestic spaces? Do you know of any especially good examples of architecture that incorporate space for the private self within shared or communal living situations?

Tarsha Finney: As a concept, privacy can’t be separated from the powerful instrumentality of the self within the spatial performance of housing. Domesticity individuates us within spatial hierarchies – requiring time alone (in your specific bedroom, for example) as part of the project of oneself, while also demanding a collective life of surveillance within shared living spaces. 

It’s very easy to be critical of this machinery of domesticity – its heteronormative dominance, its tight bundling of finance, industrial production and manufacturing (like white goods, constructions systems, etc). But as an instrument, domesticity has been very successful. Remembering the challenge of creating the new – what we are always looking for in the MA City Design – is not the answer, but rather comes back again to the conditions of experimentation.

Where we find this happening around questions of privacy at the scale of the dwelling unit is in Switzerland with the Cluster Apartment. This is a group of non-familial people in a co-operative, sharing living, kitchen spaces, but holding onto bedrooms/ensuite bathrooms. One example is Heizenholz. Typically, its cluster apartments are 5 bedrooms each – with around 11 people, of all different ages, living together and sharing living space. Heizenholz was one of the first cluster apartment experiments that the Kraftwerk co-operative did. Because no-one believed that anyone would want to share a large kitchen, each room was provided with a small kitchenette. But it turns out no-one uses these. 

Key to the functioning of these clusters is the autonomy each cluster has to establish their own norms of etiquette and behaviour – who does do the washing up, when is one allowed to use the washing machine, what is the consensus around reprimanding someone else’s kids, etc.


MPavilion: What are the benefits of having five students be a part of this program with RCA and MPavilion?

Tarsha Finney: Our MA City Design post professional architecture and urbanism students come from diverse backgrounds and experience. We have students from Germany, China, Israel and Korea. They have spent one term at the Royal College of Art, spending a huge amount of time cultivating arguments regarding domesticity, housing and disciplinary futures. As part of the programme, we work in diverse political contexts: London in the borough of Haringey, a council area that sits within the lowest 10% of socio-economic indicators nationally in the UK. We also work in Barcelona, with the incredibly progressive administration En Comu on their complexity and proximity strategy for the development of super blocks and the delivery of social services for their ageing populations, and we work in Hong Kong looking at the challenges of foreign domestic labour forces and the use of public space in the city. Now we’re coming to Melbourne.

Australia presents an incredibly interesting political context for students of other countries to consider. We are perhaps one of the most successful democracies – one that has been at the forefront of progressive social policy in many ways, with a rich history of experimentation in residential housing. And yet there is very little work being done in terms of co-operative housing, shared spaces and new ways of living together. So we are excited to be sharing this trajectory of research and design work with the city.


MPavilion: Why is a symposium like this so important right now?

Tarsha Finney: Now it’s important because of climate change, which is a political and systemic problem – not something that we can address as individuals. As experts in spatial disciplines, we need to use our tools to work out how to address this issue.

Fantastic work is being done in Melbourne and Victoria around new logics of Collectivity at the scale of the building block with initiatives such as Nightingale. But we believe that there is more work to be done thinking through the problem of domesticity itself. What is the new scale in which we will find meaningful intimacy and care – amongst ourselves, for intergenerational living, for future generations – and for our non-human kin? Who are we together?


Supported by MPavilion’s principal partner RACV, ‘What is Home?’ is a week-long symposium, presented in collaboration with the Royal College of Art London. During the symposium, five students from the RCA’s City Design MA Programme will research shared housing and the modern family, before presenting workshops and panels on the future of housing in Australia and beyond.

Wominjeka (Welcome). We acknowledge the Yaluk-ut Weelam as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet. Yaluk-ut Weelam means ‘people of the river camp’ and is connected with the coastal land at the head of Port Phillip Bay, extending from the Werribee River to Mordialloc. The Yaluk-ut Weelam are part of the Boon Wurrung, one of the five major language groups of the greater Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to the land, their ancestors and their elders—past, present and to the future.