Spotting the penthouse is difficult. From most angles, the observer’s view is led into the clouds, thanks to the mirrored steel in which the penthouse is covered. This mirror-surface hides it from the view of passersby on the street and from that of a drone above. The house appears only through its contours, presenting itself to those who already know its location. The view from the penthouse itself, on the other hand, is spectacular: The city unfolds down below and it is one of the few spots from where one can see the horizon and witness the rising and falling of the sun everyday.
The Penthouse à la Parasit appeared for the first time in the Neukölln neighbourhood in Berlin, in 2019, and has since been installed in Bernau and Munich. It is unclear how many Penthäuser à la Parasit actually exist. The production costs are low and the blueprints are in circulation. Equipped with a gas stove and an external toilet, it allows for the satisfaction of basic needs. The mirror coat does not only protect from unwanted views, but also reflects the heat from the sun, maintaining mild temperatures in summer. The house requires around three weeks to build and once this is accomplished, it can be put together and taken apart within hours, leading to the high degree of flexibility necessary to relocate before eviction.
The vast empty spaces and unused buildings were characteristic of Berlin after the German reunification and contributed significantly to the myth of the city as being a wild playground for creative freedom. While the myth is still present, the abundant opportunities for creative appropriations of urban space have disappeared. Rent prices have increased dramatically and affordable living space is harder and harder to find. The real estate market in Berlin attracts investors and developers from all over the world, pushing people who can’t keep up with the rising cost of living further and further into the periphery.
Penthouses are traditionally the top-floor unit of a luxury residential building, but the term is also a marketing tool to increase the value of a real estate agents’ portfolio. Penthouses are symbols for financial success, signifying the social status of their owners through their ‚exclusive views’ and their location ‚at the top‘. They stand for upward social mobility and can be read as badges of success for those who climbed the socio-economic ladder. While the Penthaus à la Parasit fulfills all the criteria of a penthouse at first glance, it unfolds a completely different interior when taking a closer look. Instead of luxury, its inhabitants find scarcity and precarity. The Penthaus à la Parasit hijacks the social meaning of a penthouse; it becomes the parasite of this meaning and creates a zone of indeterminacy within it. The Penthaus implies a different kind of mobility as well. Rather than ascending, it moves from roof to roof, disappearing and reappearing. In this sense, it moves horizontally rather than vertically.
The announcement created by the developers to advertise the Penthaus on Immobilienscout24, one of the biggest online real estate platforms in Germany, quotes Hölderlin: “poetically man dwells“. In the commercial, this can be read as an ironic hint to how naive ideas about the desirable lifestyle of the bohème drive the increase in value of particular neighbourhoods in the city.
Hölderlin’s phrase was famously taken up by Martin Heidegger, who used it to inquire into the meaning and condition of possibility of human dwelling. On the first page of his essay, which he published in the aftermath of the Second World War in 1951, Heidegger notes that dwelling is threatened by the housing shortage – a problem that is present today as well, but for different reasons. Critical of the idea that poets are mere dreamers disconnected from reality, Heidegger unfolds an understanding of poetry as not opposed but essential to human dwelling. Drawing from Hölderlin’s poem, Heidegger argues that man’s dwelling is dependent on an “upward-looking measure-taking of the dimension” and identifies this “taking measure” to be “what is poetic in dwelling”1. Poets connect the heavens and earth through producing and using measures.
While for Heidegger the dimension between earth and sky is characteristic of human situatedness, we find a different take in the writing of Michel Serres. In his 1982 publication The Parasite, Serres explores the parasitic relation as an indispensable condition of human life, drawing from fables, the history of science and cybernetics. The parasite implies a relationship that is beyond exchange and opposition, rather pointing toward an endless play of attempted exclusion and secret integration. Interruption enables order, noise enables signals and dissensus enables communication. Being situated parasitically implies dependence, being nested and entangled. The parasite lives in precarious conditions and moves away once discovered, only to reappear at a different location or in a different costume later on. In this sense, dwelling in the Penthouse is parasitical. Fabulating with Serres, we can reformulate Hölderlin: “Parasitically dwells man“.
The displacement and the precarity to which the Penthouse responds are grounded in economic developments, most importantly real estate speculation. Speculation is commonly understood as the financial operation of measuring investment risk against future returns2. It is a measuring not of the dimension between earth and sky but between present and future, mediated by risk. Engaging with cultural theories of finance economics, cultural theorist and curator Joshua Simon regards speculation as the “epitome of our time“3.
In his essay “Speculation and Counter-Speculation. From value to price, from labor to debt, from revolution to disruption,” Simon examines the ways in which the financialization of the economy have changed our living conditions, our modes of cultural production and our political imagination. He reaches a depressing conclusion: The theoretical power of financial instruments predicting the future, the precarity running through almost all social strata and the dominance of price and debt have exhausted the collective capacity to imagine alternatives – a condition that Mark Fisher described as “Capitalist Realism”4.
In response to this condition, Simon calls for a different kind of speculation. In the reader Speculation, Now (2015), Vyjayanthi Venturupalli Rao suggest an understanding of speculation where “the speculative moment is one in which a new understanding of uncertainty emerges — uncertainty conceived, not as the lack of knowledge about the content of any specific possibility but rather as the idea that a variety of actualizations can emerge from the event”5. These speculative practices deviate from economic pragmatism, instead they aim to create a suspension of disbelief, a moment in which imagination is reintroduced through a window of uncertainty. Elaborating Rao’s approach further, Simon understands these practices as counter-speculations.
The Penthouse finds niches and introduces zones of habitation in the city’s blind spots. It is a tiny house and an inhabitable sculpture on a material level, but it is also a discursive object and a fabulation, a fiction. It tells a story about the drastic changes in the socio-economic structure of urban space. Part of it is a fable featuring the penthouse as an actor. It is presented as art, as groundless or fake real estate, as an intervention or a protest. It is also a hoax, a scam, a kind of squatting, a speculative design object and an excuse not to pay rent in order to avoid falling deeper into the trap of student debt. It uses the legitimacy of art to produce a habitable milieu in the zones of overpriced and exclusive living, neighbouring luxury hotels and other penthouses in the city. Interpretations of the Penthaus depend on perspective and hence remain diffracted. The Penthouse creates a zone of indeterminacy between the material and the symbolic, the grim and the light-hearted, economic pressure and creative freedom. Refering to Rao’s and Simons’ understanding of the term, it is precisely this zone and the narratives that unfold from it are what make dwelling in the Penthouse counter-speculative.
The word speculation has ambiguous roots. it derives from the speculari – scouts who watch out for danger from the highest point of the watchtower. It also contains the Latin speculum, the word for mirror6. In this sense, the Penthouse offers a speculative dwelling not only in a conceptual but also in a literal sense: its dweller lives inside a mirror. This mirror gives the Penthouse a resemblance to spaceships, satellites and otherworldly means of travelling and communicating. It appears as alien and futuristic, even unreal. This unrealness is part of the aesthetic strategy of the Penthouse. It is part of its counter-speculative existence, and also of its poetics: its way of measuring not time or height, but the distance, now collapsed, between itself and the heavens reflected on it. The Penthouse borrows from this state of unrealness in order to find a new opening beyond the exhausted imaginary and calculated futures within capitalist realism.
- Heidegger 1971: 221
- Kuoni 2015:11
- Simon 2017
- Fischer 2009
- Rao 2015: 20
- Rao 2015: 19
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist realism: Is there no alternative? John Huwnt Publishing, 2009.
Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter. Harper and Row, 1971.
Rao, Vyjayanthi Venuturupalli, Prem Krishnamurthy, and Carin Kuoni, eds. Speculation, Now: Essays and Artwork. Duke University Press, 2015.
Serres, Michel. The Parasite. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Simon, Joshua. Speculation and Counter-Speculation. From Value to Price, from Labor to Debt, from Revolution to Disruption. Public Seminar Weblog, 2017.