Architecture, I’m led to believe, is all about space and its qualities – or, to put it another way, objects and what they mean. My house, for example, is a significant object that means something to me, and which would have meant something to its original maker in 1923.
What does it mean?
From external appearance you will probably gain an impression of middle class security, ordinariness, practicality and robustness. The original maker would likely have valued respectability, modesty, and conformity, and, since the neighbouring building is almost identical in plan but not in elevation, the person who made them both was seemingly keen to avoid dull repetition, though hadn’t let this be a cause for actual variety. There is a regard for the local building traditions, the importance of ‘good’ rooms and a slightly formal approach to living, though, conversely, little regard for ornamentation, almost none for the location of the sun.
Some of these values I can also locate in myself, others I can’t. Though the observer wouldn’t know about these, just as they wouldn’t be aware if the original maker was working class, desperately stifled by Edwardian brick cottages or who longed to be experimental without any consideration for what anyone else thought.
Whoever you think I am, or this person was, it’ll be somewhat inaccurate – because buildings ‘speak’ inadequately, are liable to be misunderstood, or because a measure of suppression, embellishment, and manipulation of the truth has taken place.
As a future architect, I am interested in how our homes might mean something genuine and useful to us, for example when we are forced to create meaning – when we build – for a building cannot mean nothing.
Some friends would provide insight, I thought, since they were building a house for themselves, aided by a local firm of architects, and were therefore likely to have dabbled in identity and meaning. I imagined a comprehensive brief, fussy with detail, that would enable the architect to create, as Robin Boyd puts it, “a sort of personal portrait of the occupants and himself”¹.
The truth startled me: “Oh, we didn’t have a brief at all”, one of them said, “[the architect] just took one look at the block and said “yep, I know what i’m going to do””.
Surely not? Everything I thought I knew about commissioning a building was upset… a range of problematic implications now presented themselves, chief amongst these that the lives of my (poor unknowing) friends – the very thing that had motivated the project in the first place – would be woefully absent from the portrait now emerging in brick and steel around us.
More fool me. Not only were they braver than I, but had also recognised what I had not: that their personal characters would be revealed in other ways – in a manner which the art critic Nikolaus Pevsner had been discovering in 1955.
Like myself, Pevsner had been attempting to locate identity somewhere in grand and creative; in his case he was looking for England’s national identity in the art of the past. It turned out not to be in art, but somewhere less conspicuous and deliberate: in the nation’s soup tureens, chairs, bookshelves, and door handles – everyday objects thought to have captured, with greater precision and sincerity, values held dear to the English: directness, manners, dignity, quiet confidence, a lack of fuss, and so on².
If we want knowledge about our identities, we can pay attention to the self-portrait emanating from our everyday objects, just as I – for better or worse – can see my family within the things that surround me.
Whilst our housing is meddling with our image out on the street, these objects will merely tell the truth of who we currently, intuitively, are.
all images by author
- Boyd, R. (1968), The Australian Ugliness, Penguin
- de Botton, A. & Armstrong, J. (2017), Art as Therapy, Phaidon