Brave New City | Living Together

A freewheeling talk with the proud 120-year-old matriarch of a multigenerational household, circa 2120.

John Ronan Architects sat down with Greta Nguyen-Ortega on August 12th, 2120 to discuss her experiences living in an intergenerational home in Chicago.

First of all, thank you for meeting with us. There seem to be a lot of people in this household, so I’m wondering if we can start with you telling us who they are.
Sure. Well, there are four generations living here—me, my daughter, her son and his wife, and their children, Leo, who is 18, and Chan, who is now almost two years old.

And how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?
I’m 120 as of last week.

I’d like to compliment you on how fit you look for your age.
Well, I haven’t done it alone—I’m on my second artificial hip and I’ve had three organ donations to keep me going—though I’m not completely happy with the bladder I got last year. I’ve also had my brain scrubbed at one of those walk-in facilities to improve my cognitive abilities.

And your family?
My oldest daughter lives here with me. She’s 79 and grows most of the food you see in the garden off the kitchen; she’s been single for a couple decades now, by choice. Her son lives here with his wife. I like her; she looks kind of strange with that shaved head but that’s the style now for women. My grandson is a robotics ethicist and works primarily out of our house.

What’s a robotics ethicist?
Well, it’s someone who deals with the ethical issues of all the robots you see around. His area of focus is cars—he works with the programmers of automatic navigation systems in cars—like, if your car is driving you down the street and a cat walks into its path, does it hit the cat or swerve out of the way and potentially cause an accident?

Interesting. Where does he come down on that one?
Based on his pet tendencies—you saw his robotic dog—I’m predicting a lot of dead cats over the next few years. Seriously, this is an important issue since the Equal Rights Act for Animals was passed.

And the baby?
He’s a handful. He is a product of genetic engineering—pre-implantation haplotyped to screen for genetic diseases that will prevent what happened to his grandfather. I’m guessing he won’t need all the spare parts that I’ve collected over the years.

Tell us about the room we’re sitting in.
This is the Media Room, and everyone uses it in different ways and at different times. It’s part communications room—the DigiWall includes a videophone so I can talk to my sister in Mexico every day—and part theater. We can all watch different things at the same time together, or once in a while watch the same thing. It’s also part classroom; my daughter takes distance-learning classes here from her spiritual advisor in Japan, and my other great-grandson takes his college classes here.

He goes to college at home?
We don’t say, “goes to college” anymore. College comes to you. Yes, he is enrolled at Harvard and uses the media room every morning for his classes. He’s studying to be a plant geneticist and makes his own food.

Makes his own food?
Yeah. He comes up with his own genetically engineered vegetables. He’s been doing this since he was a kid when we couldn’t get him to eat his broccoli. He prints them out of the 3D printer and eats them. To each his own, I guess …

The kitchen looks different from what we know as a kitchen. Why is there a big electric meter on the wall and two faucets in the sink, for instance?
That’s not an electric meter; it’s a water meter. Ever since the Water War with Canada in the [20]50’s we have to purchase water credits from the government to moderate our usage. The credits you are allotted are based on the number of household members, which is another factor driving intergenerational living. There are two faucets because one of them is for fresh water, which we have to pay for, and the other for water we harvest from rain and fog. You can also buy water from private water companies, which we have been doing lately because my daughter is dating a water salesman.

So that explains the combination sink-toilet tank in the powder room.
Yes—you don’t want to take a drink from there.

What about electricity?
The house is energy positive—we collect more energy than we use. Most global energy production now goes to desalinate water in the Arid World.

And the scale—is that for weighing food?
No. We’re taxed based on how much garbage we throw away. What’s not used goes to the Intermodal Waste Market, where it is sold to a broker. They sell mostly to governments, which rely on waste importation as a source of income.

Let’s talk about your bedroom. I notice that it is kind of small by our standards. Can you tell us about that?
Bedrooms are really just for sleeping now, to conserve space.

And where is the clothes closet?
We don’t have closets full of clothes. You have a small number of clothing platforms, a basic clothing type, which is off-white, and you put it into the printer, which de-wrinkles the fabric and prints your outfit for the day. The dyes are food-based and fade pretty quickly, which they do intentionally so that you have to buy more clothes software.

What are the holes in the bedroom wall?
The beds are all adjustable, so that you can modify the height as you age—it’s a “passive accessibility” feature that’s cheaper than getting new knees.

Let’s talk about the home’s exterior. It looks more like a car than a house.
Yes, and buying a house today is more like buying a car. You select a platform and then fit it out with the modules you need, which can be upgraded over time, as you acquire more money or your family needs change. Everything plugs together like those Lego toys kids used to play with, and can be easily taken apart and recycled.

So, generally speaking, what is the time frame for a house to fully recycle?
About 50 years. My section of the house has the oldest modules now, so my family will replace them when I’m gone; I have too many memories invested in them to do it now.

See the other Brave New City articles here.

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