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What’s in a Home?

2,155 words

I took an interest in architecture a few years back, after reading Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. The book described the effects of the arrangement of space on how we perceived and acted in the world. The effects of arranged space could be negative—the distraction of eye-catching advertisements and flashing lights—or positive—the machine-like feeling of cooking in a well-stocked and well-organized kitchen. But this observation has some profound implications in the realm of morality and identity, because to whatever degree we have control over our character beyond our genetic limitations, we are what we pay attention to. The organization of space dictates a great deal of the distribution of our attention, curating the options from which we might choose. For example, if my room has a computer and no books, then it is unlikely that I will choose to read Aristotle’s writings over playing Skyrim or doing something else, because the option to read Aristotle was not presented to me by my environment. I did not “jig” my room properly for that.

In the academy and in the church, this is still a somewhat controversial subject. Since Plato and Christianity, many have held that the soul—“free will,” or your “true self”—is disconnected entirely from the material world. They essentially argue that there is no necessary connection between the physical, mundane world, and how you spend your attention. In the empirically-driven world of marketing, however, this is not even a question. Just as an example, you can walk into a Home Depot, and you will see that the racks for power tools, lumber, and other “men’s sections” are painted orange, while the paint, interior décor, and other “women’s sections” are painted white. The environments are optimized to make the customer feel at home in the places they are most likely to buy things. Retailers spend millions of dollars on research so that they can place things just so, getting the music and colors just right, and generally to arrange the space so that people will behave in the manner that they want—to spend money. If commercial revenue is any indicator of success, then the reality of the connection is undeniable.

This principle is not limited to the optimizing sales. Sometimes, it can be used more maliciously. At the University of Iowa, the away-team locker room is painted a shade of Pepto Bismol “drunk tank” pink, based on research showing a calming, pacifying effect on prison inmates. A possible price to pay when you’re away from home, and you don’t control the space.

But what does “home” feel like? Is purely a matter of hanging up pictures you like, or does it have something deeper to do with the architecture and interior design? Could we be at home in a large yurt or an African rammed-earth house, provided we got the right lamp-shades? Witold Rybczynski’s Home: A Short History of an Idea begins with a description of complete interior-design packages put together by Ralph Lauren, designed to emulate the feeling of a rugged hunting lodge, a classic English lounge, a French countryside house, or a Bahama villa. Presumably, they are reasonably capable of inducing the nostalgic feelings they aim for, but it is hard to imagine any number of throw-pillows and drapes making an igloo feel like an English lounge.

Perhaps the more important point is that nostalgia is all that the superficial trappings of “home” can do, and “nostalgia” is not home. Literally, it is the “longing for home,” coming from nostos, “homecoming,” and álgos, “pain.” They are reminders of what home used to be, cues for the architectural associations that make us feel at home, but without the real thing. A real “home” is a building in which the space is ordered specifically and personally for those who live there. While pretty interior décor is often a result of a building being a home, décor does not itself make a space “home.”

As Rybczynski demonstrates, the concept of “home” that we yearn for today is a European one—specifically, Dutch, French, and English. The European home reflects the values of domesticity, privacy, and comfort. But will it remain so? If the qualities of a European home reflect European values, and if the market for architecture becomes more diverse as people from all over the world with different family structures and different architectural preferences move in, what will happen to our homes?

We can already see the beginning of the answer now, in the newer suburbs.

The modern suburban house is designed for everyone, and for no one in particular. The primary value is not in whether it feels like “home,” but in resale value, to a market of any number of possible buyers, from any number of cultural backgrounds. Most people move in and out in less than a decade, and so they are looked at as monetary investments, rather than spiritual ones. They are for arranging our finances, not our attention, or our time, or our family, in the way that architecture—in its ideal application—can be utilized. In short, our houses are no longer homes, but fungible units of exchange, like dollars. And like dollars, because they are moving around (or rather, we are expected to keep moving around; “if you don’t like it, go somewhere else”), the cost of personalizing homes has increased. Many people don’t even seek to own their homes, content simply to rent. There, the possibilities for truly feeling at home, for making your space into a home, diminish.

And without a home, our ability to organize the space around us, and by extension, our time and our attention, diminish. It is ceded to others, like Home Depot. Or the University of Iowa.

Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness corroborates this, and notes how the subject of architecture has been viewed with increasing disinterest in recent years. The distaste for architecture is not new, of course, and Botton quotes some old examples of Stoics and Christians who rejected the value of architecture in nearly absolute terms:

The Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus is said to have demanded of a heart-broken friend whose house had burnt to the ground, ‘If you really understand what governs the universe, how can you yearn for bits of stone and pretty rock?’ (It is unclear how much longer the friendship lasted.) Legend recounts that after hearing the voice of God, the Christian hermit Alexandra sold her house, shut herself in a tomb and never looked at the outside world again, while her fellow hermit Paul of Scete slept on a blanket on the floor of a windowless mud hut and recited 300 prayers every day, suffering only when he heard of another holy man who had managed 700 and slept in a coffin. (pp. 11-12)

The modern skepticism of the importance of architecture is, of course, less spiritual in its nature, but it can sometimes have a moral tinge to it. Talk of bigotry or “gentrification” hang in the air, reminding people not to be too vociferous in asserting their preference for an architectural style that make them feel more at home than whatever the “new Americans” are buying. But the greater threat is actually economic in nature, as one would expect in a globalized marketplace:

Ask the property development company what sort of houses will go up on the doomed field, and you’ll be sent a waxy marketing brochure showing five different house types, each named after an English monarch. The Elizabeth II boasts chrome door handles and a stainless-steel oven; the George V has a fibreglass-beamed dining room and a Neo-Arts and Crafts roof; and the Henry VIII is, inevitably, a Neo-Tudor loyalist.

If, after browsing through the elegant presentation material, we still felt inclined to question the appearance of these buildings, the property developer would almost certainly retaliate with a familiar and apparently invincible argument: such houses have always sold rapidly and in great quantities. We would be sternly reminded that to scorn their designs would therefore be to ignore commercial logic and attempt to deny others a democratic right to their own tastes, bringing us into conflict with two of the great authoritative concepts of our civilisation, money and liberty. (pp. 259-60)

Greg Johnson has argued that we need a homeland in the same way that we need a room of our own, a space in which we can truly relax, and in which we can have the best odds of fully self-actualizing. The logic of having a home applies in equal measure to having a homeland. Even as more and more people are declaring themselves to be nationalists, countless others act as if having a nation of your own is not just unnecessary, but immoral. At the very least, many believe that the nation is outdated and irrelevant. These people believe that nations are pointless sources of division, are just baggage in a globalized economy, and are pretty arbitrary anyway. Better to be free, and shed your national identity like a snake leaving behind its old skin. Better to be homeless. A citizen of the world.

But shedding one’s nation does not make you more free, because our decisions are not divorced from the space around us. Choosing to rent rather than to own your own home gives your landlord the power to arrange the building in a manner that suits his needs, not yours. Renters are not free to add or remove a wall, to install a skylight for more natural light, or to play music at whatever hour suits your personal schedule.

With this in mind, why would anyone assume they could retain something as unique as the freedom of speech in a nation in which they are merely renters?

Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle described a character, an old war veteran-turned-shaman who told the future of the protagonist. Inside his house, in the place traditionally reserved for a Shinto shrine, a television was constantly blaring. This, I fear, is the symbolic future of architecture, of homes. Not Japanese, not European, but for all and for none. The hollow homes. After all, Shinto is unique, peculiar to a people, while television is universal. If people remained stationary, then perhaps the market could provide for different needs. But in a moving multicultural world, the only economically viable architecture is the universal. And the universal can never be home. What is universal is not private. What is universal is not domestic. What is universal is not comfortable.

What is universal is not yours.

If it sounds as if I am blending two unrelated topics—architecture and nationalism—consider the argument of de Botton’s property-development manager, and the necessary moral separation made between the house and the neighborhood itself. After all, preventing your neighbor from doing whatever he likes with his house would be an infringement upon his liberty and his rights to his own tastes. Yet the primary determinant of the value of a house is determined by “comps”—comparative local listings, or homes in the same area of approximately the same age and size. This is partially because the primary reason that people move into the houses they choose isn’t the house itself, but the community. The neighborhood, in other words, is a feature of the building. Put another way, Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of integrating the house with the local, natural environment is not so much a prescriptive principle, but a descriptive one. The surroundings are a part of the house, whether we designed it that way or not.

Just as the our surroundings are a part of us, whether we know it or not.

Architecture is one of the oldest forms of art—perhaps behind music, cooking, and dance. It is an immensely powerful tool of self-expression, and also of self-creation. Skyscrapers aid us in efficiently running highly effective organizations and keeping even a densely populated urban center organized. Cathedrals inspire us with thoughts of the sublime and the transcendent. And even the subtle environmental cues of the local grocery store, designed primarily to help them earn more money, also help us find what we are looking for faster, and make the experience of shopping more pleasant. But the immense power of architecture is not an intrinsic force for good. Ugly, brutalist buildings and thoughtless, messy architecture can affect us in the mirror opposite manner as a picturesque chapel or an intelligently designed office building. Worse, they can be used maliciously. Crawford described the manner in which casinos can induce us to spend ourselves “to extinction,” and the open, exotic architecture of Las Vegas is surely connected to the achievement of this end.

Ultimately, it’s better to be at home. Home gives you the best chance of living a good life. Home allows you to be yourself. But you can never truly be home in place you don’t own.

The best you’ll be able to manage is nostalgia.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Patricius
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed the article and am sorry to quibble, but this misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of free will is really all too common. It means that ultimately nobody can ever be compelled to choose evil. It doesn’t mean our choices aren’t influenced be material factors (e.g. poverty or genetics), and it certainly doesn’t mean that there’s no connection between the arrangement of the physical world and what we are likely to pay attention to!

    • Buck Daniels
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      There are many Christian schools of thought on this, and because of this, any generalized description will of course misstate the position of some. Still, the heart of Christian doctrine is the rejection of this world and of the flesh for that of the spirit and the world to come. Not all Christians take injunctions to hate the flesh and to take no thought of this world in a literal fashion, but the general spirit of separation (which is logically required for there to be an opposition between the spirit and the flesh) is, so far as I can tell, a mainstream Christian position.

      Obviously, the existence of beautiful cathedrals somewhat mitigated the relevance of the digression in a historic sense.

      • Patricius
        Posted November 2, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for taking the time to reply Buck.

        While accepting that there are various schools of thought in Christianity, I think we can also say that there is a clearly an original stream of teaching, a tradition that has been maintained in the orthodox and apostolic churches (e.g. of Greece and Rome) and it is this to which I refer. This has held that it is important to understand the meaning of phrases plucked from scripture such as ‘world of the flesh’, etc., in the context of a certain metaphysic. I admit that the bible lends itself to misunderstanding when considered as a text in isolation.

        Consider the fundamental claims of Christianity: the Incarnatiom and the Resurrection. I think you will find, in fact, that ‘the heart of Christian doctrine’ is precisely the union of flesh and spirit in a proper hierarchy, by which the spirit is restored to primacy and the flesh is ennobled through subjection to rightful authority.

  2. Rhodok
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Interesting article, thanks. I will check out the referenced literature.

    This is a bit of a latent interest to me, ever since I realized that there is a likely connection between the way we think/act and the way our environment is organized. Though I have not yet given it any real attention.

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