“What we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to.”
“I tell you, it is easier to build a grand opera or a city centre than to build a personal house.”
“The home should be the treasure chest of living.”
As a student of architecture, I studied a curriculum familiar to many schools of architecture in the UK; one underpinned by design projects, theoretical in the most part, but aimed none the less at broadening and developing design capability by designing a variety of building typologies: school, church, theatre, housing, factory, office etc. It was a five-year course; each year would tend to culminate in a design project befitting the expectations of the year, and first year was no exception: we were asked to design a house.
To do so, to end the first year with the design of a house was, at the time, fairly typical, the assumption for its advocacy at this tender point in the study curriculum being:
a) that it allowed one to flex the origins of architectural auteur, and:
b) that the architectural programme, ie the brief for a house was familiar. It was a known typology, in fact the most ‘known’ of all – for after all, everyone lives in a house; whereas, everyone has not necessarily experienced (all) other typologies. No other building type can match therefore, the ubiquitous nature of house - hence, the argument: as this being the most fitting of design projects with which to end the first year.
However, when later I entered the world of architectural education, I realised that this assumption was anything but. It was in fact ludicrous to incorporate this design project into the first year; for the issues inherent in designing a house are obscenely complex; and worse, to do so theoretically, by implication assumes that the occupier is irrelevant: for no discussions can be had as to the needs of the occupier - and that need is the most fundamental of all: not to be housed, but to have a home. The two are not the same; the house is merely the shell, within which home might blossom – and to understand what is required to make such a home, one cannot separate out the occupier from the design process.
This assumes of course a scenario whereby the creation of a home is a collaborative effort, between the designer and the occupier, and consequently between too all those members of a design team, and ultimately with the builder. However, homes, obviously, have been built out-with this scenario, and it cannot be argued otherwise: that there is no rule to the process. There is though, a common factor: regardless of the vagaries of the process, what does perpetually permeate is that the needs of the occupier predominate - and those needs of the occupier/s are many fold: who are they; what are the relationships between the occupiers; what are the aesthetic preferences (not to mention the myriad of other factors, consequential on meeting these needs: of finance, materiality, context, ambition, etc.) Complexities therefore abound – and inevitably, for the designer, the problem is one of continual challenge. As Le Corbusier himself said, towards the end of his life, that of all the building types he designed, the one that forever inspired was the design of the family home: “for great things could be achieved there”.
If one speculates on this quote, one could argue that it is because architecture, no matter what the typology, is encumbered by the need to do one thing above all else: to shelter. No building will succeed in meeting the needs of the user (and, to emphasise the significance of this point: buildings are generally not conceived in a vacuum: need is the driver, the need to house the activity), if it does not duly shelter the occupier, ie: meet the (appropriate) fundamental environmental, psychological and physical demands of relative comfort, and of security ie: that one is protected.
If there is one building typology above all others that exemplifies this need for shelter it is the home. Home protects. If it does not, it inherits the worst of all failures. When Alfred Hitchcock made ‘The Birds’ in 1963, the apocalyptic character of the film was illuminated precisely by the understanding of this critical characteristic expectation of the home: for as the movie progresses, from cityscape to ever increasing reduction of architectural spaces and typologies, each is revealed to be unable to withstand the apocalyptic onslaught. Ultimately the film ends by the occupiers of a home, being trapped within their home - and the home fails. The attic, traditionally understood to be a place where dreams reside, becomes a place of nightmare; the chimney, traditionally a place of warmth (and if one recalls the story of the Three Little Pigs, a place where one benefits too as a place of culinary source) becomes a place of evil invasion; the living room becomes a room wherein living itself is under threat – to the point that the movie ends, which the occupiers having to abandon their place of greatest safety: their home.
Home, then, more than anything, must protect. But protect from what? For traditional homes, that need for protection may well have been predominated more than anything the nature of the local context: the weather. In Scotland, inclemency is a term not uncommonly used to describe the weather; and if one were required to construct a home to meet the inclement conditions, one would turn to what is suitably available. Stone, for example. (Though, of course, trees also abounded in Scotland millenia ago; but one doubtless could appreciate that stone might be a more suitable alternative in Scotland, as opposed to say: Japan.) It’s impossible to separate the character of home from its construction, for any building can only ever be a consequence of the material from which it is constructed, and that implication is always limited by the available technologies of the time and place – and in turn, the building will be a consequence of the physical characteristics of materials selected (ie: how the material is affected by the demand that it conquer the force of gravity). Stone, for example, is massive; one can doubtless appreciate its immediate capacity to keep inclemency at bay (or any marauding wolf for that matter). However, to create openings in stone walls, this comes with a constructional issue - but no matter, for in indigenous dwellings, at the time they were built there was no such thing as glass. There’s no issue if no opening is required; and more so, if the culture of the time does not support the demand, that need is further divorced. So, if one were to look at Scottish long houses, or brochs, one can understand the lifestyle of such a home was and immediate consequence of culture, time, technology and location – but undeniably, one can readily see that these homes sheltered, and unquestionably so. Conversely, one might look at the Farnsworth House designed by Mies van der Rohe (1930) and wonder: how could this ever shelter, appropriately? Many might wish, when comparing these two extremes, that their ideal home might be some hybrid of these two.
Under current circumstances, the need to shelter has become a global concern – and home has become the place all peoples have been asked to retreat to, for the purposes of the individual and collective safety (for protection basically). Yet the tone of this advice has been riddled with concern; and the term used has not helped: ‘lockdown’. It implies home as a place not so much of protection, but imprisonment (for some it may well be true – this essay makes no endorsement of social factors that might well undermine and indeed make such a ‘lockdown’ situation untenable, and home, unsafe.); and the idea of one being limited to the confines of ones home as being an infringement, a problem, a breeding place for difficulties and discouragement; hardly a blossoming scenario.
Why so? Inevitably, it might be argued that we have taken our liberties for granted; we’ve been able to walk abroad at leisure, and now we cannot. But it might also be argued that we have taken our architecture, likewise, for granted. What would this situation have been like had we not developed our technologies to such a degree, that we have robust efficient walls, suitably high, thick, and strong enough, and roofs, duly covered, that between them they allow us our comfort, warmth, and above all else, security? Houses, made of brick effectively, rather than of sticks or straw? And within, we have floors, all level, walls, decorated, pictures, hung, furniture, embracing, services, for light, heat, water, and systems too, for communication and conversation. The outside is hardly unavailable, in so many ways. And even if we might not experience all that outside offers, we have windows, through which we might view the world, and light our lives, and open to draw in air and close, when that air turns cold (glazing, which has become so technically advanced that condensation no longer forms on the inside.) If we were living millenia ago, we would have retreated likely for months, into darkened hovels, rank, fetid, damp, and with no view to the outside world. Today, we have glass; we have options, that previously we did not.
Either way, whether contemporary or indigenous past, what is common: is that in these difficult times, home is being called upon to do that critical thing which underpins its existence in the first place: to protect us. Had home as an architectural typology never existed, it would most certainly have been created in double-time under current circumstances; thankfully we have however that wealth of past endeavours, which have provided so many, already, with so much: a place to call home.
“Oh, Nancy, I hadn’t seen this before, “, she breathed. “Look – ‘way off there, with those trees and houses and that lovely church spire, and that river shining just like silver. Why, Nancy, there doesn’t anybody need any pictures with that to look at. Oh, I’m so glad now she let me have this room!”
(From ‘’Pollyanna’ by Eleanor H. Porter, 1912)