After waiting a number of weeks for a copy of At Home by Bill Bryson to make its way off the Holdshelf and into general circulation at the local library, I finally purchased a copy the other day. I can fully admit to being completely fascinated by opinions, history and thoughts on what we all take for granted as a “house” as expressed by non-architects. I can’t seem to stop buying books that give a thoughtful point of view on the cultural edifice that is a house that are not written by architects, their magazines and especially the architectural academy.
Bryson has written a number of books, most of whom I would classify as armchair travel lit. In this case, the territory to be navigated is the house as conceived and formulated in Western Civilization over the last few hundred years. The book’s chapters are based on the rooms of a typical house – kitchen, dining room, etc. – and plumb the often odd history of the use of the room and its accompanying embellishments. This kind of gentle deconstruction of the house, room by room, through history, is interesting even if it does, in its own form, reinforce the functionalist view of the house.
The most interesting section so far has been only a brief mention of an aspect of “house” design that I keep finding myself pondering over and is a subtext in a current project of mine. In Renaissance villas and houses, the drawings rarely define rooms by their function. Rather than labeling and defining a room for dining or a room for studying, a house is a collection of larger and smaller spaces. The Italian word for furniture, mobili, gives us a clue about this lack of functional definition – furniture was meant to be mobile and so was one’s occupation of the house. Rooms were used for reading or sleeping or eating depending on the season and the time of day and the house was not a series of defined stage sets but rather a landscape to be traversed throughout the day and year.
“People moved around the house looking for shade or sunlight and often took their furniture with them, so rooms, when they were labeled at all, were generally marked mattina (for morning use) or sera (for afternoon).”
I admit that I have not yet finished the book, but I think I can recommend it to any one interested in what we mean by a house and how our patterns of using houses are embedded with a fascinating history. I would especially recommend it to architects making residential projects as both an interesting read and a necessary perspective of the house from beyond the myopic view of the profession which tends to frame a house as merely a aesthetic object.