Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Knock, Knock: The House and Who's There: Introduction

The following paper was written for a creative non-fiction course with Simon Schama

I’m discontented with homes that are rented so I have invented my own.

--Blossom Dearie, in “Tea for Two”

“There’s no place like home.” Home is where we like to end up at the end of the day: a space that is familiar and safe. We carry our ideals of “home” along with us, hopefully, in the end, to find a house to put them in. The hominess of a house comes from the presence of our bodies. We fill the spaces of our houses until they look less like architectural spaces and more like ourselves.

As a child, I compulsively drew interiors of homes filled with people:

From the time I was born to when I was eleven (roughly when these drawings ceased to be produced), I had lived in four different houses in four countries. Yet the drawings in this time span do not vary significantly. The interiors (bedrooms, sitting rooms, and dining rooms), always inspired from my own homes, kept the same furniture and objects. As long as our material possessions didn’t change, my concept of ‘home’ was portable. As I drew, I paid painstaking attention to the details of what went on the shelves, what people wore, and how the furniture was placed in the rooms. I’d make up the inhabitants’ life stories, imbuing the rooms with conversations and memories. The rooms with no stories were otherwise boring. As I look back on them now, they have served as records of my own memories.

I hereby propose to return to my childhood compulsion by building a house out of paintings. The rooms already exist, but their houses do not. Frank Auerbach has lent us his Sitting Room; Jan Vermeer his kitchen, The Milkmaid; Pierre Bonnard his bathroom, Nu dans le bain au petit chien; and Maira Kalman her bedroom, Dream in Venice.

With painting, the body literally goes into the making of the room: it is a product of the human body. We will inhabit four different bodies, four different homes, but in one house.

In putting together these four interiors, one must first build their structure, or their house. It will be built of two stories, with the sitting room and kitchen downstairs, and the bathroom and bedroom upstairs—a basic floor plan, similar to your preschooler’s box-like depiction of a house. This seemingly simple structure to our house, however, will guide our movement as it divides the private (bedroom, bathroom) from the public (kitchen, sitting room).

This breakdown of private and public spaces finds its origins in the ancient model of the Pompeian house. Along one vertical axis were the ‘public’ spaces—the fauces (a narrow, covered entrance), the atrium (the central court), and the tablinum (where guests were received). To the back of the house was the private setting, the peristylium, a gardened encased by rooms.

In his text, Idea of a House, Richard Wesley claims that the Pompeian house established the house as a place to “dwell” in (122). Its floor plan consciously creates a journey for the visitor and the inhabitant, as rooms and vistas work together in logical progression in order to gradually ‘introduce’ the house. Wesley describes the Pompeian house as “a machine of sequential tableaux” (122). The use of ‘tableaux’ points to the composed properties of rooms: they are set up, aesthetically, with the intention to remain that way, almost as symbols. We dwell in rooms that are likened to paintings, as they hang in our lives like fixtures. In describing the house as a ‘machine,’ Wesley alludes to Le Corbusier’s description of the house as a “machine we live in,” where we rest and work in order to ‘function’ (120). Also like a machine, a house is made of parts, with logic and flow; if a major part, or room, were missing, it wouldn’t work.

Le Corbusier’s design of the maison dom-ino­ creates a house that doesn’t have any walls, doors, or windows (123). Wesley claims that this design changes “the idea of the house as a ‘contrivance for the effect of dwelling’” as it “[incorporates] and [transforms] into a ‘machine for transcendence’” (123). As children of the 20th century, we imagine most houses to still have rooms that are separate, closed off, with walls and doors. For the most part, we have not quite reached this ideal of one shared space. In the end, we like our privacy, and it seems that it has remained this way for centuries.

However, Le Corbusier’s maison dom-ino can still be applied in a more general sense to the way we feel about our homes. As Wesley points out, dom-ino­ relates to the term domus, “a household or home,” and domi, “to be at home.” To be at home is to move through the spaces freely, as if they were one’s own, knocking one vertical domino down after the next, as they collapse into one space—“transcending” boundaries. In our own houses, we do not feel like the doors and walls are barriers; we do not seek to detect the “contrivance” in our own “dwelling.” We like to think of the space as whole.

What happens when you put four different people from various time periods and backgrounds into one house? Can the house remain “whole”? The illusion of wholeness, or lack of boundaries, comes from the homogeneous quality of a house: the traces are of the same people, leaving the house with an even look or mood. However, our painted house lacks this cohesive aesthetic; it is a place of differences. Our transitions from room to room are not smooth as we enter into four homes in a single house. Our definitions of ‘homely’ will be confused and contradicted, as our house becomes a place of discomfort rather than comfort. If we look at the house as Le Corbusier’s “machine,” it has all of its parts, but it doesn’t necessarily work: it has a logic (four rooms and a two story floor plan), but not a flow. We feel the contrivance in our dwelling. A common structure does not resolve the differences among various people and their objects.