British architect Sir John Soane was an especially determined maker of home. During the early 19th-century he acquired several adjacent properties in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields and, over a sustained period of years, set about a little re-modeling.
Possessing wealth, enthusiasm, a large collection of art and antiquities, and also considerable knowledge of architectural precedent gathered from the customary grand tour, he set about installing these into rooms of his own design. The effect, as can be seen, was giddying. The Soane’s house became a monument of sorts, serving his professional and domestic legacy, though his sons (who were intended to be edified and inspired by the endeavour) remained utterly uninterested in its supposed delights, much to John’s dismay.1
I share John’s interest in tinkering with domestic arrangements, though blushingly admit that our funding and ambition differs slightly. Well, you have to start somewhere.
I trace the beginnings of my own enthusiasm – somewhat unexpectedly – to a moment when a VW Beetle came into my wife’s possession. VW ownership is, we discovered, a property ladder of sorts: Beetles become Kombis*, and Kombis became, in many senses, our first simple homes.
Perched on top of the rudimentary mechanical package was a robust occupiable shell, whose principle offering was a metaphysically stable site for our daily rituals – secure tenure no matter the dubiousness of the selected locale. The home possessed identity – a pre-existing trait popularly conceived as related to unpretentious liberation – but which we could adapt to suit our own terms, turning it into something that would encourage belonging. Comfort came in the form of conveniences that offered protection from the elements, a good night’s sleep, hot meals that could be enjoyed with cold drinks and music, sufficient storage, tactile and attractive materials, control over levels of light and air, plus a view from the curtained windows.
Though not a building, a Kombi is undeniably and palpably spatial, a perception that is particularly heightened when the 2.5m2 floorplan is shared with others. The extent of the envelope, it’s fittings and the occupants are very proximate at all times – simple tasks can require the position and movement of multiple bodies and devices to be carefully choreographed. We got good at cooperating.
As with all antiquated housing, good order was never permanently assured – occasionally a crisis arose and these capers provided the real souvenirs of living; experiences that people actually wanted to hear about, and from which something was learned – practically and philosophically – by finding a solution.
Things that weren’t wrong or broken could be improved. So began a compulsion toward projects of improvement, not just for the material gains, but because we sensed that investing thought and effort into the thing led to a better understanding of it, and ourselves.
There were ten VW’s in all, three of them Kombi’s – one was a workhorse and just enjoyed, one was home for 6 months, and the last became our own Soane’s House – a personal obsession which was reduced to a tabula rasa and rebuilt over a sustained period according to our own vision of happiness. It comprised all of our collected wisdom and ideas regarding living, exploring, belonging and improvement.
“the common wish is to dream up a world, of which the maker is master, where everything is as he or she wishes it” 2
J.M. Gandy, “Breakfast Parlour at 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, image: Dr Liv Gibbs (Twitter: @DrLivGibbs tweet)
The worlds that we make can, frustratingly, start to hold us back, even becoming a kind of prison. Observe the Soanes children, George and John, as they scuttle around – “like mantises inside the elegant but rigid grid”, as Rowan Moore remarks – trapped inside the evolutionary terminus of an idea3.
Unlike Soane’s, when my obsession became stifling to my family, I let it go. But I retain my curiosity, and continue to strive for improvement – however modest – within homes of the static kind, and so iterate the domestic experiment.
*(Type 2, Transporter, Campervan, Bulli, Bus, Hippie Van, Bread Truck, etc.)
- Stroud, D. (1984) Sir John Soane Architect, Faber & Faber
2. Moore, R. (2012). Why We Build, Picador
3. Moore, ibid.