August 1, 2003
Can a design for a vacation house comment seriously on international politics?
San Diego architect Petar Perisic describes his Satellite House, a vacation home for Serbian-American expatriates on the outskirts of Belgrade, as an antiwar machine. If its design manifesto is to be believed, there’s very little that the house won’t do, from “globally eradicating separating mechanisms” to “serving as a catalyst for promoting nomadism” to advocating “understanding, tolerance, and peace.” Exhibited last spring at the Museum of Applied Arts, in Belgrade, and published in the latest issue of 306090, a new magazine for emerging architecture and design, the project certainly can’t be faulted for lack of ambition.
Political meanings attributed to aesthetic form tend to be overdetermined by rhetoric. It used to suffice for Peter Eisenman to say that a building was deconstructing the entire social order for it to be considered revolutionary, whether or not it had any political consequences. Today’s star-chitects tend to be much more frank about the exchange of glamorous conceits for free publicity. Rem Koolhaas doesn’t even pretend that his work has any other function than marketing; his rhetoric has the advantage of hinting at radicalism while embracing consumption. So it’s that much more exciting when a young architect attaches a political manifesto to a design.
But how, you may wonder, does a vacation house function as an antiwar device? It does have a bomb shelter, but the client, Branko Vulovic, who immigrated to Cleveland more than 30 years ago and made a decent living there installing sprinkler systems, concedes that this will primarily be used for storage. It also has an enormous mushroom-cloud-like roof with an oversize satellite dish that embodies the metaphor of information-age connectivity as the beacon of a new borderless world. Otherwise the political claims of the Satellite House hinge mostly on the shared convictions of its architect and client.
“I’m personally against any war—completely against,” Vulovic says. “I know anything can be solved diplomatically. To me war is not necessary. If somebody attacks you, you have to go to war. But to go over half of the world to do something?” Yugoslavia, now reconstituted as Serbia and Montenegro—or S&M, as a Serbian architect friend calls it—remains physically and psychologically afflicted by a decade of nationalist warfare that was finally ended by the 1999 NATO bombing campaign intended to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Some of the images in Perisic’s manifesto allude to the campaign. One shows an aerial view of the site sprinkled with Psy Ops leaflets and marked with crosshairs, as if being targeted for destruction. This is mostly tongue in cheek, says Perisic—who has also designed a proposal for emergency homeless shelters in San Diego, near the Mexican border—but he is serious about the antiwar message.
In the prologue to his manifesto Perisic writes, “Globalization is today’s new euphemism for the pillaging of the globe for expanding corporate interests….The concept of ‘place’ is being attacked by the unresponsive, prepackaged theme-park contextualism that is being exported from the U.S.” Yet the sculptural qualities of the Satellite House, with its reinforced-concrete spine and steel skeleton, are reminiscent of the Gehry-inspired tourist attractions being built across the globe. Meanwhile, its rooftop satellite dish, which makes use of the same technology employed by smart bombs, could just as easily be regarded as a paean to globalization and war. It will, in any case, make a nice summer home.