Comfort & Discomfort

Architecture, in its contemporary form, is a discipline chiefly concerned with the creation of comfortable spaces that satisfy our varying, and ever-increasing, spatial needs and human desires. Smooth surfaces, soft textures, abundant natural light, year-round 22-degree interiors -- all staples of design principles aimed at fostering a sense of ease and relaxation. The architectural equivalent of a morphine shot -- warm, calm, pacifying. Yet this culture of comfort is largely ahistorical and can be seen to coincide with the rise of capitalism in the late 18th century when our definition of comfort began to shift from its original Latin meaning ‘to strengthen’ towards an identification with convenience and the satisfaction of bodily wants (Gideon, 1948).

Key to our understanding of comfort is our identification of it as a physical state rather than a psychological mode, distinct from pleasure which may also operate at a mental level. To be comfortable does not mean to be happy but, rather, to exist in a state of sensory relaxation through the avoidance of pain. Comfort is the path of least resistance, where our demands and exertions are reduced to their absolute minimum.

Discomfort, however, is a peculiar sensation in that whilst we naturally desire the relief of our troubles, we often seek out discomfort and thrive within it. As opposed to comfort, discomfort can, in some instances, afford us psychological pleasure. The

marathon runner trains not because they find the sensation of burning legs comfortable, but because the struggle is, in some way, life-affirming. Experiencing discomfort allows us to confront the essential facts of life and offers us the chance to live deliberately.

Techno-Comfort & Space

At the dawn of the 20th century, the advancement of techno-comfort became a focal point for the pioneers of Modernism, who applied concepts such as the Existenzminimum and the principles of industrial manufacturing towards the development of the house of the future. The ‘solution’ to Architecture was found. Spatial standards of comfort were codified in handbooks such as Ernst Neufert’s 1936 Architect’s Data, with the male figure taken as ‘The Scale of All Things’ and the female figure featured solely in diagrams outlining the efficient layout of kitchens. Never had more attention been paid to comfortably accommodating the body in space. However, this technocratic tendency towards standardisation and the optimisation of comfort, regulated by a whirlwind of building codes and legal institutions, led to an overwhelming sense of existing in space rather than belonging in place. This cult of techno- comfort, although rooted in progressive principles, led to the homogenisation of spatial experiences based on Western preferences and bodily needs, causing a rift between Space and Place and alienating individuals from a meaningful and critical engagement with their living environments.

Peter and Alison Smithson’s Upper Lawn Pavilion, 1959-62, Wiltshire
Peter and Alison Smithson’s Upper Lawn Pavilion, 1959-62, Wiltshire

The Culture of Comfort

Technological Advancements since the 18th century have led to us in the Global North leading increasingly sheltered and luxurious lives, pampered by a range of goods and services that cater to our endless material desires. Throughout the course of capitalist development what was once considered ‘luxury’ (i.e. something not ‘naturally necessary’) became ‘necessary’ (Saito, 2022). This ‘Imperial Mode of Living’ is not only predicated on the unlimited appropriation of materials from the Global South but is also indifferent to the harsh conditions of commodity production and the ecological consequences of unsustainable economic growth, thus constituting the major crisis of modern capitalism. (Ulrich Brand, 2021) Far from a novel idea, Herbert Marcuse analysed this abstract form of domination, whereby advanced capitalist society maintains its hegemony through the production of ‘false needs’ and a culture of comfort which encourages social and political passivity (Marcuse, 1964).

Discomfort & The Fate of Place

Through the distinction between comfort (a physical state) and pleasure (a psychological mode), the architectural significance of discomfort becomes apparent. An uncomfortable space can be a pleasurable space in the same way that an uncomfortable experience (such as running a marathon) can be a pleasurable experience (Esteve, 2018). Pleasure, in this context, necessitates both physical and intellectual activation from us, stimulating new perspectives that are otherwise numbed by the culture of comfort. This introspection can lead to a deeper connection with space, as inhabitants are compelled to actively engage with their surroundings rather than passively accepting them.

Peter and Alison Smithson’s Upper Lawn Pavilion, 1959-62, Wiltshire

Discomfort becomes a catalyst for reflection. Coarse materiality, stark geometries, and the deliberate disruptions of spatial norms challenge preconceived notions of space, eliciting emotional responses in the occupants, prompting a deeper and critical engagement with the built environment and the natural world, which exist in a constant metabolic exchange. British architects Peter and Alison Smithson achieved just that at Upper Lawn, their rural retreat affectionately described by Peter as ‘a device for trying things out on oneself’. Built around the ruins of an 18th-century labourer’s cottage, their New Brutalist pavilion stripped the home back to its essential elements, promoting a radically deliberate and simplistic way of life in rhythm with the English seasons.

This is not to argue for the creation of discomfort for discomfort’s sake, but rather discomfort for pleasure’s sake. The aim is not to create spaces that are purposefully inhospitable or impractical but to forsake a certain degree of ‘excessive’ human comforts so as to infuse elements of confrontation, compelling us to become active participants in the spaces we navigate. Discomfort activates us to begin the process of place-making, affording us the agency to claim space as our own and reject bourgeois spatial and political conventions.

A steep staircase quickens your heartbeat, a cold flat reminds you to wrap up warm. An empty corner is the best place to huddle with a book, a shoebox room the perfect space to share with a lover. In short, we ought to become comfortable with discomfort.

Esteve, P., 2018. Wake Up Call: Architectural Comfort In The Age Of Passivity. PIN-UP, Issue 23.
Gideon, S., 1948. Mechanization Takes Command. New York: Oxford University Press.
Huxley, A., 1932. Brave New World. London: Vintage. Marcuse, H., 1964. One-Dimensional Man. New York: Routledge.
Neufert, E., 1936. Architect's Data. s.l.:Bauwelt-Verlag. Saito, K., 2022. Marx in the Anthropocene. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ulrich Brand, M. W., 2021. The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism. London: Verso.