Dwelling: To Have or to Be

Architecture is practiced within a culture of consumption so pervasive as to be almost invisible. That, taken with the pressures assumed by a system that rewards market conformance, results in a culture of mediocre dwellings. Banal houses are often compensated for with greater square footage, freighted symbols, and technological amenities. This can happen in so-called traditional or modern houses. In a rush to meet the client’s stated or assumed needs, having often trumps being.

One might pry open the writings of Fromm, Bachelard, Heidegger, and Alexander to better understand dwelling. There are helpful moments in those writings, but a more prosaic route to understanding is possible by asking people what dwelling means to them. I sent the following invitation to friends and acquaintances, mostly non-architects:

Is there a place or experience in your own dwelling (or one from your past) that is special to you? If so, can you describe the physical characteristics and how that place makes you feel?

The responses were interesting. Here are a few excerpts:

When I was a child, there was a window seat that … had coziness on the one hand because it was a small, separate space. On the other hand, it was vast in the way I was able to look out at the world from the window. [It] was one place where I could see trees for a long ways. — Kathleen C.

I could sit at the window on any night and watch the world go by. [The garage apartment] had a tiny kitchen with a breakfast room down a step. The bedroom was down a step from the front room at the front corner with windows all around …. — Matt S.

[I look] out my double window and take in the nature about my back yard and wooded area. She often plans her planting with my view in mind. — Charles T.

I have one comfortable chair, lots of books and legal pads, and a couple of bookcases … [with] books … stacked on the floor and coffee tables … [Being there is] like coming up for air, only it feels like dropping down deep into the clear, simple [and the] profound. — Name withheld

The big, main room was all windows and wherever you were in the cottage you could always look outside …. I knew I would slip into the thick cotton linens every night. I knew it would smell like coffee, pine, porridge, vegetables from the garden, bonfires, and roses. — Tara P.

It is a simple open space with views of the garden to the left and right. The garden feels like it is part of the house. — Michael K.

[Our porch] serves as conversation pit, quiet time with the trees, an observation point for the neighborhood people traffic, cigar bar, regular bar, point of escape …. The ceiling is high enough so as not to constrict the space but low enough to remain intimate. A large “craftsman” type window adds to the feeling of the porch being an extension of the living space.  — Joe H.

[There] is something quite magical about being in one’s living space in the late afternoon/early evening, with all the lights off, and being aware of the changing intensity and color of the light. — Les H.

[My] little flower bed out by the shed flourished. A moon vine went berserk and covered a big arbor made of two-by-fours outside the kitchen door. I felt it belonged to me and I belonged to it. [It] was comfortable, cozy, and warm. This dwelling place hugged me. — Sophia T.

[My] favorite place … was one that allowed me to enjoy the outside from the inside … a place with large picture windows …. I also love a large open space that encompasses a small cozy “me” place.  [The] open floor plans allow us to feel that we’re in the same room and we are all together. — Lisa M.

My living room is my comfort zone …. [It has high] ceilings, heavy elaborate dentil moulding, tall walls for art … paintings, architectural artifacts, soapstone carvings, vintage magic posters, Leann’s geisha-ware collection, pre-Columbian pottery, etc. I feel real good. — Bob A.

The recurrent themes of these dwelling stories include intimacy, shelter, views, and connection to the outside world. Using the stories as a touchstone, a number of rubrics can be developed as a help in thinking about the design of dwellings.

Here are a few in no particular order:

  • Address the other four senses — the tactile, the audible, scent, and even taste.
  • Provide views beyond the property if possible. Views within the property are essential.
  • Establish a rich relationship to the landscape.
  • Allow for moments of enclosed repose. Non-architects might call this “coziness.”
  • Connect to the sky to mark the time of day and the change in the seasons.
  • Enliven interior vistas using furniture settings, diagonal views, and interior windows.

The rubrics listed above might add insight to a study of the photographs in this issue of Texas Architect, since it is assumed that the daily living patterns, budget, and other necessities are satisfied in these projects.

The Wildwood Pool House connects to light from above with a roof-mounted lantern and to the landscape with terraced planted areas. The ceilings offer a textured surface and the outdoor shower allows a close connection to the wood plank details matching the surrounding fence.

The Vanguard Way House offers a literal connection to the world outside with eave-mounted birdhouses and a human perch atop a cylindrical tower. Unstained wood at the interior provides texture while high windows offer views to the sky.

The Fisher Street House creates a relationship to its site by hovering over it and promising to be transported away at a moment’s notice. This approach, ironically, heightens one’s awareness of the site and creates a kind of anticipated memory. The combination of high- and low-cost materials with a range of textures invites the touch of the hand.

Gurley Place at Jubilee Park, a collective dwelling place, has a greater range of issues to address that extends to urban design through community involvement. The porches address the street and the mid-block path. Low walls and planting beds create a spatial and a literal connection to the landscape.

The Brandt House exploits large areas of glass for views to the immediate landscape and the sky. The open plan encourages connections between spaces defined by intimate furniture groupings. The contrast of smooth and rough textures creates a lively play of light across the building — inside and out. The architect/client relationship described in the Brandt Residence article is perhaps the most valuable insight into how that project came into being.

Each of these houses invites questions about how to dwell and how to talk about dwelling. It might be useful for architects to consider profiling projects on their websites by including occupant interviews after a year or so of living in the houses. Candid photos of the houses could create an entirely new way of exploring dwelling patterns.

Unless architects want to continue to be excluded, we need to develop a clear way of thinking about how to add value to the housing market. If builders and contractors focus on low-priced, larger-sized, and amenity-laden construction, then what architects offer must be made just as tangible.

There’s no question that ideas and spatial expression are a triumph of the human mind and should be the area of an architect’s expertise. But this doesn’t have to exclude dwelling and it doesn’t have to be reserved for the highbrow. Most architects probably value authenticity through experiencing the world and not by arranging symbols and amenities, but we have to work harder to express the value of authenticity to others.

Sharing knowledge and deciding to be a co-explorer with our clients might work. How we make ourselves and our clients more aware could include:

  • Buying a book for your client that describes ways of seeing. John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing is excellent, but we frequently gift non-architects with The Happiness of Architecture by Alain de Botton.
  • Exploring buildings with your client — your projects or the work of other architects.
  • Internalizing the living patterns of your client by repeating back to them how they want to live.
  • Noticing the world like a 4-year old.
  • Guiding clients toward being instead of having.

Being versus having is a concept that opens up considerations of authenticity. If an analogy is allowed, consider the footwear of a working cowboy juxtaposed with that of a dandy. Highly finished loafers may impress, but the spur-strapped boot, lined with the evidence of frank use, carries a kind of humble authority. This doesn’t suggest ranch or barn architecture: spurs should be left on the porch and hats taken off in the house. But the cowboy boot might remind us of being versus having. This could reveal the everyday workings of our clients — their imaginings and remembrances of dwelling moments for which they yearn.

Published in Texas Architect, January/February 2013